State trial court systems don’t change their structures often. Most are established by state constitutions, although some are established by acts of the state legislature. Some states have a mix of both; a prime example is Texas, which has both “Constitutional” County Courts (one in each county) and “Statutory” County Courts (commonly called Courts at Law; from none to many in each county, depending mainly on the county’s population). Given the difficulty of changing a state constitution, and the contentiousness present in most state legislative actions, it’s easy to see why court systems are generally left alone.
Texas actually has seven different types of trial courts, while some states have just a single trial court in each county. Most states have two or three types of trial courts in each county: a court of general jurisdiction for the entire county (or several counties), a court of more limited subject-matter jurisdiction (e.g., misdemeanors, civil cases with fewer dollars in dispute), and some courts with limited geographic and subject-matter jurisdiction (e.g., City Courts, Municipal Courts, Justice of the Peace Courts, Mayor’s Courts). In some states, each county may also have specialized courts such as a Probate Court or Juvenile Court.
Most of these state trial court structures have been in place for a long time, but some have changed in recent years. When courts’ caseloads increase and budgets are tight, the search for efficiencies begins, and consolidation of several courts into one is an obvious opportunity. The consolidation may be as simple as keeping the court structure but placing it under a single administrative body, or as drastic as changing the structure, names, and jurisdiction of every court in the system.
One of the most significant changes took place in California in 1998. California had a typical 2-tier system of courts, with Superior Courts generally having jurisdiction over felonies, civil cases with over $25,000 in disupte, probate cases, juvenile cases, and family law cases. Municipal Courts had jurisdiction over misdemeanors, infractions, and civil cases with $25,000 or less in dispute. In 1998, California voters amended their Constitution to allow Superior and Municipal Courts to merge; within a short time, courts in all California counties did merge, and now California has a single-tier system of Superior Courts.
The next major change took place in Arkansas. Arkansas’ Circuit Courts and Chancery/Probate courts had county-wide jurisdiction but heard different types of cases; over time their judges began to share assignments. At the same time, Arkansas had District Courts, City Courts, Municipal Courts, Police Courts, Justice of the Peace Courts, and other local courts of limited geographic and subject-matter jurisdiction. In 2000, the Arkansas Constitution was amended to combine the Circuit and Chancery/Probate Courts into a system of Circuit Courts, and to combine all of the limited-jurisdiction courts into District Courts. Arkansas‘ consolidation of the limited-jurisdiction courts was phased in over several years, and retained a distinction between “State District Courts” and “Local District Courts” with minor differences in subject-matter jurisdiction. Some Local District Courts are still being phased into State District Courts, with the change to be completed in 2017.
Not all trial court system reorganizations change the jurisdiction of the former courts. Two states have changed their systems to combine courts under a single administration, without significantly changing the jurisdiction of those courts:
- Vermont had separate Superior, District, Family, Probate, and Environmental Courts until 2011, when the legislature restructured the system into Superior Courts with Civil, Criminal, Family, Probate, and Environmental Divisions. Vermont’s Judicial Bureau, which handles civil violations such as traffic and municipal ordinance violations, remained separate.
- New Hampshire had separate Superior, District, Family, and Probate Courts. In 2011, New Hampshire’s legislature combined the District, Family, and Probate Courts into Circuit Courts with District, Family, and Probate Divisions.
Michigan’s court system has been in a state of flux for some time. Most Michigan counties have Circuit and Probate Courts established by the state constitution, and District Courts established by the legislature. Circuit Courts generally have jurisdiction over felonies, family law cases, and civil cases with over $25,000 in dispute. District Courts generally have jurisdiction over misdemeanors, infractions, and civil cases with less than $25,000 in dispute. Probate Courts had jurisdiction over typical probate matters (e.g., wills, estates, guardianships, conservatorships) and most juvenile matters. In 1996, the legislature transferred jurisdiction over juvenile, adoption, and name change cases to Family Divisions of Circuit Courts. But in some counties, the files still reside in Probate Court offices; and in a few counties, probate judges still hear these cases, sitting as probate judges assigned as Circuit Court Family Division judges.
Michigan court system changes are still taking place. Although the legislature did not make further changes, in the late 1990s the Michigan Supreme Court set up pilot reorganizations in several counties. These counties have consolidated their courts into a single county-wide Trial Court under a single court administration. Some of those Trial Courts are organized into Circuit, District, and Probate Divisions, where the administration of the court system is combined, but each court generally hears the same type of cases it heard prior to the consolidation. Other counties’ Trial Courts are organized into Civil, Criminal, Family, and Probate Divisions. Whether these pilot projects will revert back to their previous structures, or more consolidations will take place, awaits action from the Supreme Court, the legislature, and perhaps from the voters in the form of a constitutional amendment.
CourtReference always shows the current structure of every state’s court system, with an explanation of each court type and the cases that they handle. And CourtReference’s “Self-Help and Legal Research” resource category has links to state court websites with additional details.