Courts of limited jurisdiction process a significant number of cases and are the courts that people are most likely to encounter. State courts of limited jurisdiction are the most pervasive courts in the U.S., and are appropriately called "the people's courts."
Courts of limited jurisdiction exist at the state and federal levels. Federal courts consist of Article III and Article I courts. Article III courts are created by the judicial article. The U.S. Court of Claims hears only suits filed against the federal government. The U.S. Court of International Trade hears cases regarding tariff and international trade disputes. Article I courts are created by the authority given to Congress. U.S. magistrate judges are appointed by district judges and serve limited terms as judicial adjuncts. They handle matters such as warrants, initial appearances, and some hearings. U.S. Tax Courts handle cases that involve tax payments, and disputes over the amount of taxes paid and owed. Bankruptcy courts have exclusive jurisdiction over personal and business bankruptcy. The U.S. Court of Military Appeals and the U.S. Court of Veterans' Appeals are also Article I courts.
Forty-six states have at least one court of limited jurisdiction. Magistrates' courts have elected judges and regular offices and courtrooms. Municipal courts hear traffic cases and violations of municipal ordinances. State limited jurisdiction courts are given authority by the state constitution or legislature. Small claims courts hear minor civil disputes and have their jurisdiction set at a specific dollar amount. Criminal courts hear misdemeanor cases and handle "front-end" responsibilities for felony cases, such as issuing warrants and holding initial and preliminary hearings.
Courts of limited jurisdiction are responsible for adjudicating the vast majority of civil and criminal disputes in the U.S. They are not courts of record, and often neither side is represented by an attorney. This results in judges carrying a greater burden and creates the possibility of judicial misconduct. Most cases are decided in bench trials, and many states allow for lay judges. The operations of these courts are frequently criticized by the public.
Lower level courts frequently hear tort claims, breaches of contract, and probate cases. Specialized courts include juvenile courts, family courts, and probate courts. Juvenile courts were formed with the idea that children who violate the law should not be treated the same as adults. Juvenile courts have various age jurisdictions, and subject matter jurisdiction for delinquency, dependency, neglect, and status offenses. Family courts have jurisdiction over divorces, paternity, custody, and child support. Probate courts have jurisdiction over wills, inheritances, and some other issues.
Court modernization and unification movements led to the elimination of some specialized courts, but this trend was reversed by the emergence of therapeutic jurisprudence. Therapeutic jurisprudence extends specialized courts into dealing with social problems and trends. This is best exemplified by the creation of the Drug Court Model, which emphasizes therapeutic relationships. This model has encountered both support and criticism, and has led to the creation of other courts that deal with social issues