A Brief Guide to the Michigan Court System

By: Michael D. Wiese

When people or companies disagree, they are often left with no choice but to go to court and litigate their disputes. Litigation, the process of navigating a dispute through the court system, can often be a bit of a mystery to non-attorneys and even attorneys who do not litigate as part of their practice. Our favorite courtroom dramas and movies give the impression that litigation works like this: someone decides to sue someone else; the next day, the parties and their lawyers are in a courtroom arguing to a jury, and someone pulls out a key piece of evidence that wins the case. As you might imagine, such TV shows are about as accurate a depiction of litigation as the show Scrubs must be of what it is like to work in an emergency room.

The court system in Michigan contains different levels of courts that serve different functions. The Michigan court system can be broken down into three tiers: a local trial level (District Court), an appellate level (Court of Appeals), and the highest tier – the Michigan Supreme Court.

The trial level courts are where lawsuits are filed. Lawsuits for less than $25,000 in damages must be filed in the local District Court. If a lawsuit alleges less than $5,500 in damages, it may be filed in Small Claims court, a division of the District Court. Final decisions at the District Court may be appealed to the local Circuit Court. If a lawsuit alleges more than $25,000 in damages, it must be filed in a general trial court called the Circuit Court. Each county in Michigan has a Circuit Court. In the world of courtroom dramas, the Circuit Court is where the action takes place.

Once a decision has been rendered in a Circuit Court, the losing party may file an appeal with the Michigan Court of Appeals. Typically, the losing party has a right to do so. The Michigan Court of Appeals hears arguments in Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids, and occasionally hears arguments in Northern Michigan.  While people often think of an appeal as a “do-over,” it is not. Instead, a panel of three judges reviews what happened in the trial court for errors. If it decides there were errors in the trial court, the Court of Appeals may reverse the trial court’s decision. If it decides there were no errors, the Court of Appeals will affirm the decision.

From there, a party may pursue an appeal with the Michigan Supreme Court. While parties often have the right to appeal to the Court of Appeals, parties must typically apply to appeal to the Supreme Court.  If the Supreme Court grants the application (about 100 applications out of 2,000 are granted per year), the party may then appeal the Court of Appeals decision to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s decision becomes the law of the land in Michigan.

Litigation contains many unknowns and uncertainties, both in terms of the time and resources that will be expended and the ultimate outcome.  When facing potential or actual litigation, it is always best to consult with an attorney familiar with the litigation process to help guide you through the resolution of your dispute.


Note: This blog is meant to provide a basic overview of the structure of Michigan Courts for potential civil litigants, and does not include information about criminal cases.  Further, it focuses on courts hearing general matters and does not include explanations about the Court of Claims, Probate Court, or other divisions of Circuit Courts (e.g., Family Division).