Court Unification

Resource Guide

While every state has a slightly different organizational scheme to their judicial system, all state courts are divided into four general categories or levels: trial courts of limited jurisdiction, trial courts of general jurisdiction, intermediate appellate courts, and courts of last resort. In an attempt to improve court administration at the structural level, major court reform efforts have taken place to unify administrative authority, centralize rulemaking powers, acquire unitary budgeting, and a consolidate state and local trial court funding.

Links to related online resources are listed below. Non-digitized publications may be borrowed from the NCSC Library; call numbers are provided.

Featured Links

Gavel to Gavel Database.

Search the Gavel to Gavel legislation database based on state, year, legislation category, or any combination.  Bill Type = "Structure Changes".

State Court Structure Charts.

Detailed diagrams of each states' court system (US territories included).


Raftery, William. Unification and Bragency a Century of Court Organization and Reorganization . (2013). Judicature 96:6 Review of efforts over past century to "unify" judicial systems at the state level. Examines how term "unified" court system evolved and changed and notes that some 26 states are now constitutionally, statutorily, or by pronouncement by their supreme courts "unified".
Keilitz, Ingo. A Study of Court Consolidation in Mahoning County, Ohio: Final Report. (June 2011). National Center for State Courts, Court Consulting Services.

The purpose of this study is to provide an objective analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of consolidating the limited jurisdiction courts in Mahoning County below the Court of Common Pleas level.

Griller, Gordon M. Governing Loosely Coupled Courts in Times of Economic Stress. (2010). National Center for State Courts, Future Trends in State Courts 2010.

This article discusses how difficult financial times are giving rise to changes to trial court governance, forcing a new blend of centralized and decentralized decision making not widely experienced in the past.  For some, recognizing and skillfully using these new approaches in leading trial courts might mean the difference between adapting well to these tough times or not.

Sally Holewa. Court Reform: The North Dakota Experience. (2009). Justice System Journal 30, no.1.

This articles traces the North Dakota Court System's path to unification through consolidation of trial courts, centralized administrative authority, centralized rulemaking, centralized budgeting, and state financing.

Jude Del Preore et al. Innovation from Crisis: The New Jersey Municipal Court Experience. (2009). National Center for State Courts, Future Trends in State Courts 2009.

The current fiscal crisis might prompt local courts to consider shared-services arrangement to consolidate operations and cut costs.  The New Jersey experience offers helpful tips and cautions.

Steelman, David. Trial Court Administration and Management in State Courts: Viewing Arkansas in a National Context. (April 2002).

Issues in trial court administration arising from an amendment to the Arkansas constitution that merged multiple trial courts into a two-tier system with one general-jurisdiction circuit court and one limited-jurisdiction district court.

Lahey, Mary Ann, Ph.D et al. Analysis of Trial Court Unification in California . (September 2000). America Institute for Research for the Judicial Council of California The study examined the impacts of trial court unification in four major areas: (1) the utilization of judicial resources; (2) the organization and efficiency of court staff; (3) the efficiency of court operations; and (4) the quality of services provided by the courts.
Tobin, Robert. Creating the Judicial Branch: The Unfinished Reform. (1999).

This book addresses many of the fundamental issues of state judiciaries and includes a section on the Court Reform Movement that investigates the historical context of court reformations, the unification of judiciaries, and the creation of judicial administrative offices.

Tobin, Robert. Funding State Courts: Issues and Approaches. (1996). 119 pages.

This one hundred twenty-two page book highlights the National Interbranch Conference on Funding the State Courts.

Rottman, David and William Hewitt. Trial Court Structure and Performance: A Contemporary Reappraisal. (1996). 160 pages.

Court Unification's contemporary value based on comparative research in trial courts of nine counties in five states. Court unification remains an essential tool for court reform, however other aspects are crucial as well and report mentions those in further detail.

Edelman, Mark A., and Terry L. Raun. Does Rural Court Consolidation Save Costs?. (September 1995). Judicature 79: 86 This article discusses the cost effectiveness of rural court consolidation using Iowa's plan as an example.  The author analyzes the economics of consolidation court operations and delivery services in the state's 99 counties.   
Baar, Carl. Trial Court Unification in Practice. (December 1992). Judicature 76: 179 Baar examines unified trial courts in three states: Illinois, South Dakota, and Minnesota.  and then compares these state court structures to the American Bar Association's "long-standing support for a single-level trial court with a single class of judges", 
Henderson, Thomas A. et al The Significance of Judicial Structure: The Effect of Unification on Trial Court Operations. (1984). Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice This book chronicles the court reform movement and discusses the four issues related to court unification: improving operations by changing the judiciaries' structures, proactive policymaking, accounting for the functional requirements of the courts, and the shifting of judicial accountability by creating management offices.  (KF8736 .S5 1984)
Henderson, Thomas A. et al. Structuring Justice: The Implications of Court Unification Reforms. (1984). Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice This one hundred four-page report analyzes four questions.  The four questions are as follows: "What structural changes have been implemented in the states under study?", "How does structure affect trial court management?", "How does the adjudicatory process affect structure and define management issues?", and "What objectives can be met by a unified court?"  (KF8732 .H46 1984)
Gallas, Geoffrey. Court Reform: Has It Been Built on an Adequate Foundation?. (1979). Judicature 63: 28 This article is a critic on the efficacy of court reform.  The author attempts to examine the goals of reform and the possible but unexpected, un-discussed and unintended consequences. 
Berkson, Larry, and Susan Carbon. Court Unification: History, Politics and Implementation. (1978). Washington, DC: National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice This two hundred fifty-nine page study investigates four different aspects of court unification.  "The first objective is to trace the evolution of court unification thought the twentieth century...The second objective is to investigate the concept's principal strengths and weaknesses."  The book also addresses the politics of achieving court unification" and "the problems encountered by those attempting to administer various aspects of court unification.  (KF8719 .B47)
Pound, Roscoe. Organization of Courts. (1940). Boston: Little, Brown and Company This classic work analyzes the historical contexts of court organization and reforms.  (KF8719 .P68)

The Michigan Experience

Ferry, John D., Jr. Assessing the Early Experience with Michigan Court Consolidation Demonstration Projects. (November 2001). Judicature 85: 129 This brief essay discusses the Michigan Court Consolidation Demonstration Projects and the projects' subsequent National Center for State Courts' evaluations. 
Steelman, David C. Reflections on the Process of Evaluating Trial Court Consolidation Projects in Michigan. (November 2001). Judicature 85: 125 This article responds to the concerns addressed about the Michigan court consolidation experiment.  Steelman focuses on the criticisms from James Hill ("Rethinking Michigan's Trial Court Consolidation Experiment") and tries to refute Hill's allegations concerning the ineffectiveness of the program. 
Hill, James P. Rethinking Michigan`s Trial Court Consolidation Experiment. (November 2001). Judicature 85: 116 Using the lessons learned from the Michigan court consolidation experiment, the author investigates the positive and negative implications of the experiment and asserts that the effectiveness of consolidation is indeterminate.  Hill also notes that because each state's judiciary differs in organization and philosophy, the lessons drawn from the Michigan court consolidation experiment cannot be universally applied. 
Hansen, Kurt N. Some Real Doubts About the Court Consolidation Demonstration Projects. (November 2001). Judicature 85: 133 This essay is written by Chief Judge Kurt Hansen of the 55th Circuit Court in Michigan expressing his views that court consolidation is a politically-motivated judicial development and that the actual effectiveness of consolidation is questionable at best. 
Davis, Alton T. The Court Consolidation Demonstration Projects -- An Unqualified Success. (November 2001). Judicature 85: 131 This short account is written by a chief judge in Michigan discussing his court's success with consolidating and reorganizing the judicial circuit court. 
Baar, Carl. Trial Court Consolidation: Michigan in Context. (November 2001). Judicature 85: 134 This article analyzes the Michigan court consolidation experiment debate and its main participants -- James Hill, David Steelman, and John Ferry -- in the "context of trial court consolidation in other jurisdictions, and court reform efforts more broadly."