Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
Courts of limited jurisdiction include district and municipal courts. District courts are county courts and serve defined territories, both incorporated and unincorporated, within the counties. Municipal courts are those created by cities and towns.
More than two million cases are filed annually in district and municipal courts. Excluding parking infractions, seven out of every eight cases filed in all state courts are filed at this level. This is due primarily to the broad jurisdiction these courts have over traffic violations and misdemeanors.
District courts have jurisdiction over both criminal and civil cases. Criminal jurisdiction includes misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors cases that involve traffic or non-traffic offenses. Examples include: Driving while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs (DUI), reckless driving, driving with a suspended driver's license and assault in the fourth degree. Preliminary hearings for felony cases are also within the jurisdiction of the district courts. The maximum penalty for gross misdemeanors is one year in jail and a $5,000 fine. The maximum penalty for misdemeanors is 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. A defendant is entitled to a jury trial for these offenses. Juries in courts of limited jurisdiction are composed of six people as opposed to superior court juries, which have 12 people.
Jurisdiction in civil cases includes damages for injury to individuals or personal property and contract disputes in amounts of up to $75,000. District courts also have jurisdiction over traffic and non-traffic infractions, civil proceedings for which a monetary penalty--but no jail sentence-may be imposed. There is no right to a jury trial for an infraction. District courts have jurisdiction to issue domestic violence and antiharassment protection orders and no-contact orders. They also have jurisdiction to hear change-of-name petitions and certain lien foreclosures. More information on these procedures can be obtained by contacting your local district court.
Small claims are limited to money claims of up to $5,000. These are filed and heard in the Small Claims Department of the district court. Generally, each party is self-represented--attorneys are not permitted except with the permission of the judge. Witnesses may not be subpoenaed, but may be allowed to voluntarily testify for a party. Examples of cases heard: Neighborhood disputes, consumer problems, landlord/tenant matters and small collections. The district court clerk can provide specific information about filing a claim.
Violations of municipal or city ordinances are heard in municipal courts. A municipal court's authority over these ordinance violations is similar to the authority that district courts have over state law violations. The ordinance violation must have occurred within the boundaries of the municipality. Like district courts, municipal courts only have jurisdiction over gross misdemeanors, misdemeanors and infractions. Municipal courts do not accept civil or small claims cases. As with district courts, municipal courts can issue domestic violence protection orders and no-contact orders. A municipal court can issue antiharassment protection orders upon adoption of a local court rule establishing that process.
Traffic Violation Bureaus (TVB)
In addition to a municipal court, cities can establish traffic violation bureaus or TVBs. TVBs handle traffic violations of municipal ordinances that involve no possible incarceration. The primary purpose of a traffic violation bureau is to expedite the handling of traffic cases that do not require any judicial involvement. The TVB is under the supervision of the municipal court and the supervising court designates those traffic law violations that a TVB may process.
Domestic Violence and Antiharassment Orders
District and municipal courts are confronted daily with domestic violence issues. Besides adjudicating criminal domestic violence and antiharassment cases, courts of limited jurisdiction also enter protection orders. These are no-contact orders, orders of protection and antiharassment orders. No-contact orders and orders of protection can be obtained in either a municipal or district court. Antiharassment orders can be obtained in district courts, as well as in municipal courts that have adopted local court rules establishing the process. Court personnel are knowledgeable about domestic violence issues and can assist a victim in completing domestic violence or antiharassment forms. However, court personnel cannot give legal advice.
Appeals from Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
Cases are appealed from “the record” made in the lower court. In courts of limited jurisdiction, the record is made from an electronic recording of the original proceedings and court documents. The cases are appealed to superior court where only legal errors from the proceeding below are argued.
There is no additional evidence or testimony presented on appeal. The one exception is an appeal from a small claims case. Small claims cases are heard de novo (or anew) in superior court on the record from the court of limited jurisdiction.
District court judges are elected to four-year terms. Municipal court judges may be elected or appointed to a four-year term, depending on state law provisions. All judges are required to attend 45 hours of judicial training every three years.
Judges of courts of limited jurisdiction belong to the District and Municipal Court Judges’ Association. The association was created by state statute to study and make recommendations concerning the operation of courts served by its members.
Court Support Personnel
Courts of limited jurisdiction are served by an administrative support staff. Under the direction of the presiding judge, the staff is responsible for maintaining the court's fiscal, administrative and court records.
Courts of limited jurisdiction have authority to order probation for up to two years, except in DUI convictions where a court can order probation for up to five years. A probation counselor administers programs that provide pre-sentence investigations, supervision and probationary treatment for misdemeanant offenders in a district or municipal court.
Probation counselors can make sentencing recommendations to the court, including appropriate treatment (i.e. drug and alcohol counseling) that an offender should receive. The probation counselor periodically advises the district/municipal court judges of an offender’s progress while the offender in on supervision.
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