State Courts 101: Structure and Selection

Find Your State

Know the laws in your state that protect LGBT people and people living with HIV.

A. How State Courts Are Structured

Each state’s constitution and laws establish its state courts, which hear all cases not specifically designated for federal courts. Just as federal courts interpret federal laws, state courts interpret state laws. While names and structure of state court systems vary from state to state, there are similarities. Trial courts are generally where cases start. There are two types of trial courts: criminal and civil; although the procedures are different, the structure is generally the same. Appellate courts are intermediate courts that review decisions of the trial courts at the request of the parties. Finally, the high court, typically the state supreme court, hears appeals from the appellate courts. State high courts usually have the final word on important questions of state law.

B. How State High Court Judges Are Selected

State high court judges may be elected or appointed. Elected judges face voters in three ways: partisan elections, where candidates have party labels; nonpartisan elections; and up-or-down retention elections, in which only the incumbent is on the ballot and voters decide whether to grant another term. The primary model for appointing high court justices involves bipartisan nominating commissions, which submit slates of potential nominees to state governors, who in turn choose from such lists. This system is known by many as “merit selection.” The methods include gubernatorial appointment where the governor makes the selection without the assistance of a commission and legislative appointment where judges are selected strictly by a vote of the state legislature.

In the selection of judges on their highest courts, 6 states use partisan elections and 15 states use nonpartisan elections.1 In 29 states, the governor or legislature initially appoints judges to the highest court.

Once judges are on the bench, states also vary in how they retain their high court justices. Twenty states use contested partisan or nonpartisan elections. Eighteen states hold up-or-down retention elections, where incumbent judges run unopposed. Between contested elections and retention races, 38 states place high court judges’ names on the ballot for voters. The remaining states rely on reappointment or grant justices permanent tenure.


LGBT State Rights



1. Roy A. Schotland, New Challenges to Judicial Selection, 95 GEO.L.J.1077, 1085, (2007). All judges in New Mexico are initially appointed, face a contested partisan election for a full term, and then run in uncontested retention elections for additional terms. Ohio and Michigan have nonpartisan general elections, but political parties are involved with the nomination of candidates, who often run with party endorsements.


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