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Arizona Judicial Branch: Structure & Jurisdiction

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

The Arizona judicial branch is made up of several types of courts, including limited jurisdiction courts, superior courts, appellate courts and the Arizona Supreme Court. This lesson explains the structure and jurisdiction of Arizona's courts.

Arizona Court System

Miranda v. Arizona is the famous United States Supreme Court case establishing our Miranda rights. You're likely familiar with these rights from movies and TV shows. 'You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law….'

The Miranda case started with the 1963 arrest and interrogation of Ernesto Miranda in Phoenix. It ended with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1966 ruling. But how did the case get there? Like all states, Arizona's court system involves several kinds of courts. The Miranda case advanced through many steps before reaching the U.S. Supreme Court.

Arizona's judicial branch is known as a three-tier system because it has three different levels. Let's take a closer look at Arizona's judicial branch, including the three levels and the courts included in each level.

Courts of Limited Jurisdiction

The bottom level consists of the courts of limited jurisdiction. These courts are only authorized to hear certain types of cases.

There are two kinds of courts in this level:

  • Justice of the Peace courts
  • Municipal courts

Justice of the Peace courts are small, informal courts run by elected 'JPs' or Justices of the Peace. The JPs often are not attorneys and sometimes have no legal background. They decide cases involving minor traffic violations, petty criminal infractions, some juvenile matters, landlord-tenant disputes and small claims. Small claims cases are those that involve less than $10,000, like some property damage cases. JP courts help keep the court system moving. They are designed to divert smaller cases so that they do not hold up the larger, more serious cases.

Municipal courts are the second kind of limited jurisdiction court. These are city courts, run by mostly appointed judges. They decide cases involving traffic violations, minor criminal violations including some misdemeanors, city laws and city codes. Municipal courts grant protection orders and issue search warrants, but do not hear civil lawsuits of any kind. If you've appeared in court to challenge a speeding ticket (in Arizona), then you've likely been to municipal court.

Court of General Jurisdiction

The second level is the court of general jurisdiction. The general jurisdiction court has the authority to decide a wide variety of cases including serious crimes, civil cases involving more than $10,000, family law cases such as divorce, juvenile delinquency cases, cases involving the possession of real property and probate issues. It's important to note that Superior Courts are also authorized to hear appeals from JP and municipal courts.

Arizona only has one type of general jurisdiction court. The general jurisdiction court is known as the Superior Court. It is a state court and the most commonly used type of court. This is where Miranda's case started, when he was first charged and convicted of sexual assault.

The Superior Court is one entity, divided into multiple state trial courts placed in each county, such as the La Paz County Superior Court. Each county has at least one Superior Court division.

The Superior Courts are run by appointed judges. In counties with more than one Superior Court division, the judges typically rotate between courts. This means a judge will serve in a family court for a rotation, then in a criminal court for a rotation, and so on. The Superior Court also includes a Tax Court, located in Maricopa County but deciding tax disputes from across the state.

Courts of Appellate Jurisdiction

The third level consists of the courts of appellate jurisdiction. No cases originate at this level. This level only decides cases appealed from a lower court or commission.

There are two different courts of appellate jurisdiction:

  • Arizona Court of Appeals
  • Arizona Supreme Court

The Court of Appeals is one entity, but has two divisions. This court is known as the 'intermediate appellate court' because it serves as a middle stop for most cases. This court decides all appeals coming from the Superior Court, except for a few special cases specifically reserved for the Arizona Supreme Court.

This court also decides appeals coming from other courts and commissions that are allowed to skip the Superior Court level, including cases from the Industrial Commission, unemployment compensation rulings and some tax cases.

As long as a case is properly appealed, the Court of Appeals must hear it. Cases are decided by three-judge panels, though Arizona has 22 Court of Appeals judges. The judges are originally appointed by the governor, but must be elected in order to stay in office.

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