Michigan Judicial Branch: Structure & Jurisdiction

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

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

The Michigan judicial branch has three levels. It is made up of several types of courts, including trial courts, the Court of Appeals and the Michigan Supreme Court. This lesson explains the structure and jurisdiction of Michigan's courts.

Michigan Judicial Branch

Dan lives in Detroit, Michigan. Dan's upset because his neighbor cut down one of his trees without his permission. The neighbor said she thought it was her tree, since it was close to the property line, but the didn't check before removing it. The tree was 100 years old and planted by Dan's great-grandfather. Dan wants to sue the neighbor for the cost to replace the tree plus money damages for the tree's sentimental value. Where should Dan start? And how will his case progress?

Since Dan lives in Michigan he'll be using Michigan's state court system. The state courts hear and decide cases involving state laws within Michigan, including property disputes like this one. Michigan's court system is known as a three-tier system, because it has three different levels.

Let's take a closer look at Michigan's judicial branch and how it works, including the three levels and the courts included in each level.

Trial Courts

Dan's case will start at the trial court level. In Michigan, all state cases start at this level. In fact, most cases end here too. These courts hold trials and hearings for both civil and criminal matters. Michigan's trial courts include:

  • District Court
  • Probate Court
  • Circuit Court

Smaller cases start in one of the 100 or so divisions of the District Court, or 'People's Court'. This court handles the largest number of cases each year. In this court, elected judges hear cases involving traffic violations, landlord-tenant disputes, misdemeanor criminal charges (those with a possible sentence of a year or less), and civil lawsuits involving $25,000 or less. The District Court is a court of limited jurisdiction, meaning it is only authorized to hear certain types of cases. Dan's case will likely be handled in the District Court.

The Probate Court manages cases involving wills and estates, and appoints guardians and conservators. It also issues legal orders regarding treatment for the mentally ill. The Probate Court is also a court of limited jurisdiction. There are 78 divisions of the Probate Court, each with an elected judge.

The Circuit Court decides larger cases. It is a court of general jurisdiction because it's authorized to hear a wide variety of cases. There are 57 divisions of the Circuit Court, where elected judges preside over all felony criminal cases (crimes with a possible sentence of more than one year in prison) and all civil lawsuits involving disputes for more than $25,000. The Circuit Court has its own family division, which hears cases involving divorce, adoption, paternity, juvenile offenses, and child abuse. Additionally, the Circuit Court hears cases appealed from the trial courts of limited jurisdiction and from state administrative agencies.

Let's say the tree Dan's neighbor cut down landed on Dan's house. Dan wants to sue the neighbor for $100,000 in damages. Dan would file this case in the Circuit Court.

Court of Appeals

Sometimes cases can be appealed out of the Circuit Court. Only a few cases advance from the trial court level to the appellate level.

When a case is appealed, it goes to the Michigan Court of Appeals. This court has discretionary jurisdiction, meaning it has some say in what cases it hears. Michigan law requires the Court of Appeals to accept most appeals, but not all. If Dan appeals the decision of the Circuit Court, the case will go to this court.

At this level, three-judge panels hear and decide cases. The 24 total judges are elected or appointed, depending on the district. The panels hear several different types of cases, including:

  • Final cases appealed from the Circuit Court
  • Certain cases appealed directly from the Probate Court (skipping the Circuit Court)
  • Certain appeals regarding administrative orders
  • Original cases involving lawsuits against the State of Michigan for more than $1,000, which are heard in a special division known as the Court of Claims

Michigan Supreme Court

Only a few cases advance past the Court of Appeals to the Michigan Supreme Court level, or the 'court of last resort'. This is the final state court system stop for cases involving Michigan law. There is only one Supreme Court courtroom, located in the state's capital of Lansing.

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