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March 18th, 2014 · No Comments

From our early civics lessons we know that there are two court systems in the United States judiciary-federal and state.  On this CourtReference site, we focus exclusively on the courts from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.  State courts have broad jurisdiction to interpret the laws that govern our everyday lives: where we live, where we work, with whom we marry, procreate, and divorce (or any combination thereof!), and where we ultimately may be laid to rest.  From cradle to grave, we abide by the laws of our resident state, and are subject to the rulings from our state courts.

But we also recall from our civic education that we are subject to a “dual sovereignty” of federal and state governance.  Under the United States system, power is shared between both entities.  The US Constitution expressly grants certain powers to the federal government and reserves the remainder to the states.  As James Madison delineated the authority of the federal government to the state governments in the Federalist Papers (Number 45):

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

(Source: Library of Congress, THOMAS,  The Federalist Papers)

Too pedantic for practical purposes?  Regarding our dual court systems, federal courts resolve disputes involving the US Constitution and laws and regulations passed by Congress. Federal courts also have exclusive jurisdiction over:

1) cases in which the United States is a party;

2) cases between citizens of different states, if the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000;  and

3)  cases involving bankruptcy, copyright, interstate and international commerce, maritime, and patent law.

State courts retain jurisdiction over issues involving the state constitution and laws and regulations passed by the state legislature.  State courts also preside over state civil and contractual disputes, state criminal offenses, family law, personal and professional injury (workers’ compensation) claims, real property, probate, and traffic disputes.  There may be other causes of action not listed here, but generally speaking, state courts preside over matters that individual citizens commonly encounter.  On this CourtReference site, you can find your state, county, municipal or specialty court, with links providing valuable information about each court’s services, programs, resources, and contact information.  All for free!  So,  if you find yourself involved in any of the above actions, your recourse will be state court, but your preparation should start with CourtReference!

In conclusion, where we live profoundly impacts how we live.  Think about the compelling and controversial issues of the day. Do you support same-sex marriage? 17 states permit marriage for same-sex couples (at the time of this publication).   Do you prefer to live in  a “duty to retreat” state or a “stand your ground” state in terms of self-defense?  Currently, 31 states allow a “stand your ground” justification for the use of deadly force in self-defense.  Whether you prefer to reside in a “right to work” state or one that offers “death with dignity” options for end-of-life decisions, the choice of where you call “home” will define the course, quality, and values  of your daily life.




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Chancery Court

January 30th, 2014 · No Comments

Unless you live in Delaware, Mississippi, or Tennesse, you may not be familiar with the term Chancery Court. But Chancery Courts were part of the English judicial system for hundreds of years, were brought to the American colonies, and were part of most U.S. states’ early judicial systems.

The name itself originated outside of the judicial system; in Europe, starting with the Roman Empire, the Chancellor was in charge of government records. When today’s English legal system first began to develop after the Norman Conquest, the Chancery was the public records office, under the direction of the Lord Chancellor. Because the Lord Chancellor was the keeper of the royal seal and a chief advisor to the Crown, it was a powerful office - a government bureau, staffed with bureaucrats.

As the English common law system grew, parties unsatisfied with its limitations began to petition the Lord Chancellor, and the judicial role of the Chancery expanded. Although the courts of common law retained jurisdiction over lawsuits – disputes between parties that could be resolved by an award of money damages – the Court of Chancery had jurisdiction of matters of equity – things that could be resolved by a writ of specific performance (an order to do something), an injunction (an order to not do something), or some other resolution based on a sense of fairness. Because “fairness” was a more flexible standard than common law’s reliance on precedent, having a case heard in the Court of Chancery was an attractive prospect, so the caseload grew. But corruption in the form of exorbitant fees and conflict with the system of common law courts dogged the Chancery until major reforms in the 19th century combined the courts into a single system. Yet the distinction between law and equity remained – they required different remedies – so the English judicial system included a Chancery Division. The judges were now actual judges instead of the Lord Chancellor or his minions.

Courts of Chancery in the U.S. were generally merged with courts of law around the same time that occurred in England, e.g., New York in 1846, Michigan in 1847. Delaware, Mississippi, and Tennessee retained their separate Chancery Courts, while other states retained the distinction between law and equity cases in their merged systems. For example, New Jersey Superior Courts in each county have Chancery Divisions which handle general equity, contested probate, and family cases. Circuit Courts in larger counties in Illinois have Chancery Divisions, most notably in Cook County. Many South Carolina counties have a Master in Equity, who can  hear cases that may be heard without a jury and make a recommendation to Circuit Court. South Carolina Masters in Equity may make final decisions in some cases, although those decisions can be appealed to Circuit Court or the state Supreme Court.

Note that chancery cases are always civil cases, never criminal. Since equity generally includes orders to do or refrain, rather than resolution of money disputes, chancery cases can include wills, the administration of estates, trusts, and guardianships and conservatorships for children and incompetent adults – although in many states, these types of cases are handled by probate courts. Chancery cases may also include divorce and adoptions, although in many states those cases are handled by family courts or trial courts of general jurisdiction.

The Delaware Court of Chancery is probably the best-known U.S. chancery court, because it hears cases involving the many corporations that are chartered in this corporation-friendly state. It can order specific performance or an injunction, which are typical remedies in contract or intellectual property cases, but it can also award money damages in technology cases where over $1 million is in dispute. In addition to its business caseload, it also hears cases involving land disputes, trusts, probate, and guardianships.

In Mississippi, Chancery Court judges are still called Chancellors and, like their early English antecedents, they also have local government administrative duties. In court, they hear cases involving family law (including divorce), probate, guardianship, real estate, and mental health commitments. In counties without a County Court, the Chancellor or an appointed referee sits as Youth Court judge to hear juvenile matters.

In Tennessee, Circuit Courts and Chancery Courts are separate but share jurisdiction over many types of cases: most general civil cases, family law, probate, and guardianships. Circuit Courts may hear equity cases if no objection is raised. In effect the main difference between Circuit and Chancery Court in Tennessee is that Chancery Court has exclusive jurisdiction over cases filed by the state against corporations, and cases involving land disputes; Circuit Court has exclusive jurisdiction over administrative appeals. Tennessee Chancery Court judges are also called Chancellors, but they have no additional local government administrative duties.

Find information about your own state’s trial courts at CourtReference.

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January 25th, 2014 · No Comments

In recent news reports we have learned about the contamination of public water sources in West Virginia, and have been alerted to the potential impact of climate change on local water supplies.   Who ultimately decides disputes involving the protection, access and consumption of state water resources?

Generally, state courts have jurisdiction over local water rights created by state law.  State agencies with environmental and natural resources oversight further regulate water use and consumption policy in compliance with state law.   Conflicts involving water on reserved Federal and Indian land are resolved by negotiation and compact with state, federal and tribal authorities.

Colorado and Montana have established Water Courts with exclusive jurisdiction over all water right claims within their respective states. While these Water Courts are fairly new judicial constructs (Colorado, 1969, and Montana, 1979), their creation shares a historical and geographical background.

During the time of western expansion, the scarcity of water limited settlers’ ability to inhabit and develop large tracts of dry, arid land.  Conflicts over sharing and apportioning water resources required legal resolution, and a doctrine of “prior appropriation” evolved concurrent with the California gold rush.  To process ore, miners had to divert water from streams and rivers.   The doctrine of prior appropriation emerged, establishing a simple priority system based upon “first in time, first in right.”  Essentially, the miners who had diverted water for beneficial use first had priority claim over others who diverted water later in time.  This doctrine remains intact in most western states today.

The seniority system of prior appropriation is based upon physical control and beneficial use of the water source, regardless of actual adjacency of land to water.  The person who can assert the claim of using a water source first acquires the right to continued beneficial use and consumption, while the subsequent users can only utilize remaining water.  Additional elements of a prior appropriation claim include: the amount of water used, the point of diversion from the natural source, the place where water is ultimately used and any limitations placed upon the water source (e.g., wildlife or plant preservation free from pollution or contamination downstream).

Conversely, in the eastern states, the doctrine of “riparian rights” evolved, and still prevails.  This doctrine originated from claims of landowners seeking shared, equitable use of waterways that touched or flowed onto their respective properties.  Unlike prior appropriation rights, riparian rights are of equal priority.  The water rights attach to an owner’s adjacent land, and cannot be sold or transferred separately.  Water rights cannot be lost by non-use of the landowner.  During times of water shortages, water is allocated to landowners proportionally.

These two doctrines continue to influence water rights governance, delineated by distinct geographic and historical precedent.  Hybrid policies may emerge in courts where “priority in time” or “land with appurtenant water sources” claims are inadequate to resolve complex resource allocation issues across multiple jurisdictions.

Washington state is considering the establishment of an independent Water Court, following the lead of Colorado and Montana.   The two state models may vary in structure, but they share a mutual mission of  regulating the use and priority claims of local water resources.

In Colorado, the Water Court is a division of the District Court with exclusive powers and jurisdiction.  As stated on the Water Court home page:

The Water Right Determination and Administration Act of 1969 created seven water divisions based upon the drainage patterns of various rivers in Colorado. Each water division is staffed with a division engineer, appointed by the state engineer; a water judge, appointed by the Supreme Court; a water referee, appointed by the water judge; and a water clerk, assigned by the district court.

Water judges are district judges appointed by the Supreme Court and have jurisdiction in the determination of water rights, the use and administration of water, and all other water matters within the jurisdiction of the ,water divisions.

To find Colorado Water Court Administrative Orders, Rulings, Court Rules, Forms, and other resources for all  seven divisions on CourtReference, simply link here.

In Montana, the Water Court is a single court serving the entire state.  As stated on the Montana Water Court home page:

The 1979 Legislature created the Montana Water Court to expedite and facilitate the statewide adjudication of over 219,000 state law-based water rights (generally rights with a pre-July 1973 priority date) and Indian and Federal reserved water rights claims. The Water Court has exclusive jurisdiction over the adjudication of water rights claims.

The Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court appoints a Chief Water Judge and Associate Water Judge from a list of nominees submitted by the Judicial Nomination Commission. A division water judge is also designated for each of Montana’s four major water divisions by a majority vote of a committee composed of the District Court Judge from each single-judge judicial district and the Chief District Judge from each multiple-judge judicial district, wholly or partly within each division. The Chief Water Judge appoints Special Masters, referred to as Water Masters, to assist the water judges.

The four major water districts represented are the Upper Missouri Division, the Lower Missouri Division, the Yellowstone Division, and the Clark Fork Division.  You can find additional information about the Montana Water Court, including recent filings, cases, the Court calendar, Local Rules, forms, and resource materials on CourtReference, click here.

Whether your state resolves water resource disputes by a court of general jurisdiction or an environmental or natural resources agency, please check CourtReference for additional research resources, including contact information, case records, rules and forms.



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