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Published byBeverly Phillips Modified over 7 years ago
Chapter 12.4 The State Judicial Branch
Lower State Courts The state court system handles most of the nation’s legal matters. State courts interpret and apply state and local laws. The state court system has three tiers: courts for minor violations and lawsuits, courts for serious crimes and large civil suits, and appeals courts.
continued Many rural areas and small towns have a justice court, which handles less serious crimes called misdemeanors. Justice courts do not use juries. An elected justice of the peace hears and decides cases. Larger towns may have police courts or magistrate courts. These courts handle minor offenses and civil cases involving sums usually less than $1,000.
continued Large cities have municipal courts, often divided into specialized areas such as traffic, juvenile and small claims court. In small claims court, plaintiffs (people filing lawsuits) and defendants (people being sued) speak for themselves, without lawyers.
Higher State Courts The second tier of state courts deal with felonies, or serious crimes and civil cases involving large amounts of money. Defendants charged with felonies are tried in general trial courts, which may be called district courts, county courts, common pleas courts, circuit courts or superior courts.
continued Juries hear felony cases. The judge makes sure the trial is conducted fairly. The judge also decides the penalty when a defendant is found guilty.
continued The third tier in most states is the appeals courts. A panel of judges decides the cases. If the judges feel the defendant did not get a fair trial, they can overturn the lower court’s decision. The state supreme court reviews the decisions of appeals courts. It also interprets the state’s constitution and laws. Except for cases involving federal law or the U.S. Constitution, the decision of the state supreme court is final.
Selection of Judges Some state judges are elected by popular vote; others are elected by the state legislature or appointed by the governor. Some states select judges through the Missouri Plan, which combines appointment and popular election.
continued Critics argue that judges who must win election may be more concerned with pleasing voters than administering the law impartially. Also, voters may know little or nothing about the candidates. Other argue that popular election of judges ensures a gov’t “of the people, by the people and for the people”.
continued Judges usually have terms of 6 to 12 years. Longer terms are intended to make judges more independent of public opinion. Judges may be removed by impeachment. Most states also have boards that investigate complaints about judges. The board can make a recommendation to the state supreme court, which may then suspend or remove a judge for wrongdoing.
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