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.
Tags: Arkansas · California · Court Systems · Courtreference.com · Michigan · New Hampshire · Texas · Vermont
Unless you’ve been living under an exceptionally large rock lately, you have been subjected to renewed national debate about the merits of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). The PPACA, with its expressed goals of expanding health care access to more Americans, providing additional program choices, and reducing health care costs, was signed into law on March 23, 2010. Several lawsuits were filed challenging the constitutionality of the Act. In June of 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court held that the individual mandate, a key provision of the Act, was constitutional, allowing the health care law to advance toward implementation. As we watch this process unfold, new legal challenges have emerged to delay or block adoption of the PPACA. Many of these lawsuits are being filed on behalf of individual or joined states by their respective Attorneys General. Given the partisan spectacle recently witnessed over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling, should we question the motivation behind these lawsuits? Are the State Attorneys General (SAG) advocating on behalf of their states’ interests or at the behest of their political parties?
It would be instructive to review the role of the State Attorneys General before answering these questions. Every Attorney General is considered to be the chief legal officer of his or her state. Duties include: representing the state, its officials, departments and agencies in all cases involving the state’s interest; advising the governor, the legislature, and state officials on questions of law and public policy, and issuing formal and advisory opinions on matters originating from executive, administrative, and legislative actions.
While many legal or policy issues that arise may be unique to an individual state, others may benefit from a regional or national response. The National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) was founded in 1907 to foster cooperation among the State Attorneys General and encourage sharing of interstate resources and services. Additionally, there has been a trend toward increased collaboration with their federal counterparts, partnering on issues involving state and federal regulation, enforcement, and implementation (e.g., the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the National Mortgage Settlement, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, the Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force). Ideally, these interstate and state/federal alliances will promote nonpartisan implementation and enforcement.
But can we really expect political neutrality on the part of our State Attorneys General in executing their duties? One must truly be a student of local government to discern an answer. One factor to consider is how we select these 50 state chief legal officers. According to NAAG, they are elected independently in 43 states by popular vote. In five states, they are appointed by the state governor (Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Wyoming). In Tennessee, the state supreme court makes the selection, and in Maine, the state legislature. Terms vary but most SAG are elected or appointed for a fixed time period. However, in Alaska and Wyoming, that individual serves “at the pleasure of the governor.” In Hawaii, New Hampshire, and New Jersey, the governor appoints the State Attorney General, but cannot compel removal at will.
If a State Attorney General is elected, it is easier to imagine a degree of independence from any legal or public policy position taken by the governor, the legislative majority, or affiliated political party. But if that person is appointed or subject to removal, deviation from the administrative or legislative party line seems less likely.
Another factor to consider is whether the Attorney General has higher political aspirations. State Attorneys General frequently run for higher state or federal office (just look to the 2012 elections for multiple examples). Positions that are more popular or politically expedient may be taken to solidify a campaign and financial contribution base.
It is interesting to note that there are currently 25 State Democratic Attorneys General and 25 State Republican Attorneys General. The even split mirrors the polarization of our national political landscape. If the recent contentious standoff in Congress is any indication, we can expect many legal and public policy battles to play out, whether intra-state between government branches, state against state, or state against federal jurisdiction.
The answer to our original provocative question-can our State Attorneys General advocate for the will of the people or for their party affiliates-will depend on your personal assessment of their performance as they defend or challenge implementation and enforcement of the PPACA to reform national health care.
To find your local Attorney General opinions, policy statements, pending litigation, and other resources on CourtReference.com, select your State, then choose your Court Resource Category (Statewide Court Opinions and Orders, Statewide Self Help and Legal Research) to find links to state Attorney General sources.
September 29th, 2013 · 3 Comments
While keeping up with developments in court systems, court records, and related online resources, we at CourtReference frequently encounter discussions about the difficulty – or ease – of finding court records online. We’ve discussed the many types of court records available online, right here on this blog; see our posts about More Court Records (Jan 2012), What to Know Before Searching (Dec 2010), Jurisdiction and Court Records (Oct 2008), Court Records Basics (Aug 2008), and Where to Find Criminal Records (Feb 2008).
Yet many people still have trouble finding court records. “There’s no such thing as free court records online” is a recurring opinion. We assume that opinion is held by those who had a bad experience with paid record-search sites, or who simply don’t know where to look. Either way, that’s too bad, because it’s not true. There are plenty of free court records online, if you know where to look.
“Where can I find a free national database of court records?” is a recurring question. There is a public-access database of Federal court records, called PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), but it only covers Federal Circuit, District, and Bankruptcy courts. There is no national database of state court records, because each state has its own court system.
Commercial services that charge a fee to search court records may cover all states, but they are actually aggregating search results from all the individual states’ online systems. That may be the cause of some pessimism about the availability of free state court records; the only way to do a single nationwide search is to pay a service to search many different state sources. But if the searcher understands that each state has a separate court system, then he or she might realize that court records can be searched on a state-by-state basis. Then the searcher will find that many state and local court systems have searchable records online, for free.
That doesn’t mean that all records are available, or that they’re all free. Some court systems charge a fee to search their records, and some don’t have records online at all. It’s true that most court records – except for sensitive records such as juvenile and sexual assault cases – are public records. But if the court system does not have an online search capability, the only way to find those records is to travel to the courthouse and search the hardcopy records. After spending the time and gas money to make the trip, the searcher can only look at the records for free; taking those records home requires paying a copying fee for each page. That’s why some court systems are able to charge a fee for the convenience of online searching: it’s still cheaper than traveling and copying paper documents.
Now that we know that many court systems do have searchable court records online, where do we look? Does each state have a statewide database of court records? Sadly, no. Happily, some do. The quickest way to find out what searches are available in any give state is to use CourtReference. Select the state you’re interested in searching, then select “Search Court Case Records” in the Choose a Court Resource Category.
- If you started with Connecticut, you are in luck; you’d immediately see that Connecticut has a single free statewide search of all types of Superior Court case records, with advanced search options.
- If you started with New Jersey, you’d see that New Jersey has a free statewide record search, but that it’s limited to Superior Court civil cases.
- If you started with Alabama, you’d see that Alabama has a statewide search of its Circuit and District Court records, and that there is a fee to use the service. You would also see that a few local courts have their own Probate Court record searches.
- If you started with Indiana, you’d see that Indiana is a little more complicated. It has a free basic search of that covers Circuit and Superior Court cases in most counties, and for some city and town courts; advanced search options are also available, but for a fee. It also has separate statewide searches for criminal records and protective orders, and another free search with advanced search options that covers Circuit and Superior Courts in most counties.
- If you started with Texas, you’d see that Texas is more than a little complicated. It has no statewide search; all searches must be done at the county or municipal level, many county and municipal courts do not have records online, some counties have separate searches for different levels of courts – and did I mention that Texas has 254 counties? When searching for court records in Texas, it really helps to know exactly which court has those records.
- At the opposite end of the spectrum, if you started with Massachusetts, you’d see that no Massachusetts courts have online record searches. At least Massachusetts provides information about which types of records are available at the clerk’s office. And CourtReference Guide to Massachusetts Courts tells you how to find the clerk’s office.
At this time, Massachusetts, West Virginia, and Wyoming are the only states with no statewide, countywide, or local court record searches. Every other state has record searches, although some states only have a few at the local level and no statewide or even countywide search. As more court systems add online record searches, you’ll be able to find them at CourtReference.
Tags: Alabama · Connecticut · Court Systems · Courtreference.com · Finding Court Records · Indiana · Massachusetts · New Jersey · Texas