Many incorporated cities or towns have a municipal court, also known as a city court or magistrate court. Municipal courts have criminal jurisdiction over misdemeanor crimes and petty offenses committed in their city or town. They share jurisdiction with justice courts over violations of state law committed within their city or town limits. Municipal court judges (magistrates) hear misdemeanor criminal traffic cases such as driving under the influence of alcohol, hit-and-run and reckless driving where no serious injuries occur. They hear civil traffic cases, violations of city ordinances and codes, and issue orders of protection and injunctions prohibiting harassment. They can also issue search warrants.
Each county has justice courts that are presided over by a justice of the peace, who is elected for a four year term. These include civil lawsuits where the amount in dispute is $10,000 or less, landlord and tenant controversies, small claims cases and the full range of civil and criminal traffic offenses, including DUIs. Justices of the peace also resolve other types of misdemeanor allegations (e.g. shoplifting, writing bad checks, violating restraining orders) and, like other trial judges, also handle requests for orders of protection and injunctions against harassment.
Nearly two weeks before the five-year anniversary of Caperton v. Massey this week, plaintiff Hugh Caperton was finally awarded $5 million in damages in his case against the A.T. Massey Coal Company, who broke a coal-supply contract that put Caperton’s company out of business in 1997. The long-standing legal battle made headlines throughout its time in court, shining light on recusal rules as a way to achieve fair and impartial justice. But in spite of Caperton’s lessons about the rising influence of money on state high court elections, recusal rules — which require judges to sit out of a case if they have a conflict of interest — remain inadequate across the country.
Ruth McGregor is a retired chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court and Randall Shepard is a retired chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court. They are members of the board of directors of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan network working to keep courts fair and impartial.
The chaos surrounding the execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett was not just a wake-up call on capital punishment and how it is administered. The final hours also saw political efforts to bully and weaken Oklahoma’s courts. Similar battles are playing out around the country, threatening the ability of our courts to be fair and impartial.