Terms About Courts and the Judicial System

By Mark Nichol

As with any government sector, the US judicial system is ruled by specific nomenclature that distinguishes one type of court from another, as well as other points of style:

The US Supreme Court — US can be spelled out, but there’s no need to do so — should be designated as such, with the initials for “United States,” to distinguish it from state supreme courts even if only the federal court is mentioned. In subsequent references, it can be identified simply as “the Supreme Court” or even “the Court.” (Though court is usually lowercased in generic usage, the word is often capitalized in reference to the highest court in the land.)

Although a state Supreme Court is generally so designated in local media, in publications with more widespread circulation “the California Supreme Court” (or “California’s state Supreme Court”), for example, is preferred. Not all equivalent judicial bodies, however, are so designated; variations include “Court of Appeals,” “District Court,” “Circuit Court,” “Superior Court,” and Court of Common Pleas.”

Regional appellate courts are informally called, for instance, “the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals,” but it’s better to use the formal title — in this case, “The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.” Formal names of district courts follow this form: “U.S. District Court for the Central District of California”; their subunits are divisions whose varying names are capitalized, as in “Eastern Division.”

Names of court cases are italicized, and versus is abbreviated with a v followed by a period: Brown v. Board of Education.

The judicial system is also known by the terms judiciary and, seldom, judicature. The function of the judicial branch of government is to interpret and apply law, as well as ensure equal justice under the law; the legislative system makes laws, and the executive branch enforces them.

The head of the U.S. Supreme Court is designated the chief justice; this job title is capitalized before that person’s name, but a generic identification, even after the person’s name, is “chief justice of the United States.” All other members of the Court are called associate justices; this title is also initial-capped before a name.

A judge is identified by that job title, as in “Judge John Doe,” but remember that when a job title is preceded by a qualifying term, the job title becomes part of a description and is no longer capitalized: “retired judge John Doe,” “appellate court judge Mary Smith.”

And how do you write the form of direct address of a judge? “Thank you, Your Honor,” equivalent to usage for other civil titles — “One more question, Mr. President”; “Please have a seat, Senator.”

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4 Responses to “Terms About Courts and the Judicial System”

  • Patricia Egan

    I have just completed a fellowship in judicial administration in California. Before a writer or editor follows the style advice offered in this piece, check with the style guide for the relevant court. In California, for example, the Administrative Office of the Courts has a style guide that offers useful information about how to address judges, commissioners, and justices, active and retired, that might differ slightly from Mr. Nichol’s advice.

  • Roberta B.

    …..here in California there’s, at least, one more layer – Municipal Courts.

  • Kathryn

    And, because New York just HAS to be different, in New York “Supreme Court” is the designation for the trial courts of general jurisdiction (there are lower level courts–what Roberta describes as the municipal courts–but they have limited jurisdiction).

    Your rules about when–and when not–to capitalize are spot on, and of course the information about the federal courts is correct; the information about state courts isn’t incorrect–it’s just that state courts are a crazy quilt, because each state’s judiciary system is unique to that state. As a general rule, one should never assume ANYTHING about a state court from its name (“court of appeals” can be the highest court in the state, or a mid-level appeals court, for example). If you plan to refer to a decision of that court, the best thing to do is go get a copy of that decision–in the course of doing which you can find out the proper name of the court and extent of its jurisdiction from the court’s website. If you plan to refer to a court in a piece of fiction, go check the state’s website for its court system and figure out the name of the court from that. It isn’t that hard to do, and it will prevent all your lawyer readers from hissing and howling about your misdesignation of the court.

    Actually. . .do the same thing with state agencies. I once read a splendid mystery set in upstate New York which kept referring to our state agency that oversees welfare and similar programs as the Department of Human Services, or DHS; I loved the book, and still reread it from time to time, but have to grit my teeth every time I hit those references, because the actual name of the agency is the Department of Social Services, or DSS. Getting the details right can make a HUGE difference!

  • venqax

    “District Court,” “Circuit Court,” “Superior Court,” and Court of Common Pleas.”

    The above are not “equivalent” judicial bodies to a state’s or the US supreme court– meaning the ultimate court of appeals in the specific judicial system. Terms like district and superior denote trial courts. Circuit courts are sometimes trial courts in state systems, but are appellate courts in the federal system. It’s handy to remember that the “regions” you referrence regarding US circuit courts are called circuits. Make the terms Ninth Circuit, Second Circuit, etc., make more sense. True in NY the trial courts are called supreme courts. In Mass and NH, the state legislatures are called Generar Courts. Some places just have to be difficult.

    And, unlike Mr President or Senator Somesuch, judges only have to be addressed as “Your Honor” in the courtroom. Outside the courtroom, just “Judge” or “Judge Blackheart” are appropriate. In the US federal system ONLY Supreme Court justices take the title “justice/chief justice”, never judge.

    And many thanks for pointing out that in the US, trials are abbreviated “v” NOT “vs”. They aren’t basketball games.

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