What is a Trial Court?

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Every court case has to start somewhere, and it's usually the trial courts that are first in line. The trial court is the workhorse of the judiciary, where trials take place, juries are seated and witnesses are summoned. Appellate courts simply review documents, but trial courts get to see the bloody gloves, the victim's broken nose, the crunched-up fender and the eye-witness who breaks down in tears. Trial courts may be on the lowest rung of the judiciary but for drama, you can't beat them.

What is the Difference Between Trial Courts and Appellate Courts?

It has been said that trial courts determine facts, while appellate courts consider the law. This has a lot of truth in it. Cases start in trial courts, complaints are filed, parties added and discovery exchanged. Both parties collect evidence to establish their version of the truth. This includes witness testimony as well as hard evidence like guns, documents or blood samples.

If trial courts are colorful, appellate courts are monotone. Everything to be considered by the court comes in the form of documents, written records of what happened in the trial court below, and written briefings by lawyers about how the law should be applied. You won't find a witness or a gun, smoking or otherwise. You won't find a jury, either. The appellate judges decide the outcome of an appeal.

A second big difference between trial and appellate courts is the number of judges. Trial courts have one judge who presides over the trial. Appeals are usually decided by more than one judge, panels of three in the Court of Appeals and five to nine justices on most state Supreme Courts.

Read More: Differences Between Trial & Appeal Court

Trial Court Examples

Trial courts are not always called by that name. In California, trial courts are called superior courts, and they have trial jurisdiction over all criminal and civil cases. In an average year, more than 6 million cases are filed in these courts. There are some 1,732 authorized judges plus commissioners and referees. The judges are elected and serve six-year terms.

Trial courts in Alaska are also called superior courts. But in Michigan, trial courts are called circuit courts, and there are 57 of them. Circuit courts handle civil cases with claims of more than $25,000 and all felony criminal cases. In addition, the Court of Claims serves as a trial court for cases against the State of Michigan. Circuit court judges are elected for six-year terms.

What Happens When a Case Goes to Trial?

When a case goes to trial, each side attempts to convince the finders of fact that their version of what happened is the correct one. The finders of fact can be a jury, but in bench trials, the court determines the facts.

Each party gathers its evidence before trial, then calls witnesses and presents exhibits during trial. While the jury determines the facts in a jury trial, the judge determines the law and instructs the jury on it. After each side presents its case and offers summation arguments, the jury (or judge in a bench trial) renders a verdict, determining the case.


  • A trial court is a court of original jurisdiction, meaning a court where litigation begins, evidence is heard and the facts of the case are determined.