Definition of superior court
In common law systems, a superior court is a court of general competence which typically has unlimited jurisdiction with regard to civil and criminal legal cases. A superior court is "superior" relative to a court with limited jurisdiction (see lower court), which is restricted to civil cases involving monetary amounts with a specific limit, or criminal cases involving offenses of a less serious nature. A superior court may hear appeals from lower courts (see court of appeal).
In a number of jurisdictions in the United States, the Superior Court is a state trial court of general jurisdiction with power to hear and decide any civil or criminal action which is not specially designated to be heard in some other court. California, Maine, the District of Columbia, and Georgia are all examples of such jurisdictions. Equivalent courts in other states are variously known as courts of common pleas, (Pennsylvania, Ohio, and others), circuit courts (Illinois, Michigan, Oregon and others), district courts (Louisiana, Texas, Hawaii and others) or, in the case of New York, supreme courts.
The term "superior court" raises the obvious question of superior to what. Formerly, many jurisdictions had inferior trial courts of limited jurisdiction such as municipal courts, traffic courts, and justice of the peace courts, so it was natural to call the next level of courts "superior." However, some states, like California, have unified their court systems. In California, all lower courts were absorbed into the Superior Courts of California after 1998. The lower courts now exist only as mere administrative subdivisions of the superior courts. The superior courts are legally no longer superior to any other trial courts. Thus, the term "superior court" persists in California only as a matter of tradition.
In Pennsylvania, the Superior Court is an appellate court. In New Jersey, the Superior Court comprises trial courts of general jurisdiction, courts of equity, and an appellate division.
In the Confederate States of America, their version of the Supreme Court of the United States was instead referred to in their Constitution as the Superior Court. However, due to issues concerning the Civil War and disagreements on how it should be run, it was not even operative, and instead the State Supreme Courts were used.
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