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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

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

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

Strange though it may sound, the Superior Court, which is primarily a trial court, also hears appeals from District and Municipal Courts. When acting in an appellate role, the Superior Court is referred to as the RALJ (pronounced "raldge) court. RALJ refers to court rules created by the Washington Supreme that govern appeals from District and Municipal Courts.

A party that wants to appeal a ruling by a District or Municipal Court files a "notice of appeal" in the District or Municipal Court that handled the case. That starts the appeals process, and the RALJ Court takes it from there.

If the appeal happens before the case has been concluded, it is referred to as a petition for a writ, rather than an appeal. If the case has been concluded, the party is filing an appeal.

In appellate matters, the party filing the appeal is the "Appellant" and the other party is the "Respondent". In writ matters, the party that wants the writ is the "Petitioner" and the other party is the "Respondent.

RALJ opinions are not binding on any court other than the District or Municipal Court that handled the matter, and only with respect to that matter.

The next rung on the ladder of our judicial system is the Court of Appeals, which has three divisions. Division One covers Seattle and, generally speaking, the areas north and northwest of Seattle. Division Two covers Pierce County and points south. Division Three covers the eastern part of the state.

An appeal to the Court of Appeals must be filed in the Division in which the matter being appealed took place. All appeals from Superior Court matters, including RALJ opinions, go to the Court of Appeals. As with RALJ appeals from Courts of Limited Jurisdiction (i.e., District and Municipal Courts), a criminal defendant in a Superior Court matter has an automatic right to appeal, and to do so free of charge if he/she cannot afford an attorney.

The rules for when and how a case may be appealed in the Court of Appeals are strictly enforced, and can get rather complicated.

Finally, there's the Supreme Court, the highest appellate court in the state. Opinions of the Supreme Court are binding on all courts in the state - Courts of Appeal, Superior Court as a trial court, Superior Court as a RALJ court, and District and Municipal Courts.

There is no automatic right to have a matter heard by the Supreme Court; the Court chooses what cases it wants to accept for "review". Members of the Supreme Court are referred to as justices. Members of the Courts of Appeal, the Superior Court, and District and Municipal Courts are referred to as judges.

There are nine Supreme Court justices, and it takes five of the nine to issue an opinion. Those that disagree with the majority write what is called a "dissenting opinion". Sometimes a justice agrees with the result, but for different reasons than the majority. That justice will often write a "concurring opinion."

These first two installments have provided a broad interview of the court system in Washington State. The next installments will explain the more technical aspects of the courts, including subject matters and how the courts structure themselves.


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