Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Judiciary 101: An overview of how our court system is organized (Part I)

Unless you are an attorney, there is a strong probability that the court system is a mystery to you. This is the first installment in series describing the different types of courts, their functions, and how people become judges.

All fifty states have two general categories of courts: appellate and trial. An appellate court decides whether a trial court made some kind of mistake when it decided a case. The phrase "trial court" is really misnomer; trial courts do much more than conduct trials. They hold preliminary hearings, give rulings on motions, approve settlement agreements (both civil and criminal), hear divorce and other family matters, and on and on.

There are three types of trial courts. The first two, District and Municipal, are almost, though not quite, identical. They both handle misdemeanors (crimes punishable by a maximum of up to ninety days in jail) and gross misdemeanors (crimes punishable at least ninety one days but no more than three hundred and sixty five days in jail).

District Courts are created by the county, and hear criminal cases that occur in unincorporated territory. They also hear civil cases where the amount of money sought is less than $70,000, traffic ticket cases, name changes, small claims court, and requests for anti-harassment orders.

Municipal Courts are created by cities, and hear criminal cases that occur within the city limits. They also hear traffic infraction cases, but do not hear any of the other matters that a District Court does.

Because their jurisdiction is limited in scope, District and Municipal Courts are referred to as Courts of Limited Jurisdiction.

The third type of trial court is the Superior Court. It hears everything that a District or Municipal Court cannot. Examples include divorces, business disputes, felony crimes (punishable by three hundred and sixty six or more days in prison) as well as civil lawsuits involving sums of more than $70,000.

In the next installment, I'll touch on appellate courts and what they do.


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