District courts and district court judges have jurisdiction over civil and criminal cases. They decide cases involving the most serious criminal cases, felonies, and typically hear civil cases where the amount of money in dispute exceeds $10,000. Civil damage actions usually involve personal injury, such as automobile negligence cases and contractual disputes between parties. District judges also hear post-conviction relief actions, in which a defendant is challenging his/her conviction or incarceration. District judges also hear appeals from decisions made by magistrate judges.
Magistrate judges hear less serious criminal matters, known as misdemeanors, and can handle civil cases where the amount of money involved does not exceed $10,000. Magistrate judges also hold preliminary hearings to determine whether to bind over and send a defendant to the district court for trial on a felony charge. Magistrate judges may also issue warrants of arrest and search warrants. Magistrate judges handle habeas corpus proceedings, probate cases (wills and estates), juvenile cases, and domestic relation cases, such as divorce, alimony, child support, and child custody.
Magistrate judges also sit as judges in the “people’s court,” the Small Claims Department. Small claims involve civil disputes where less than $4,000 is in question. These cases are heard informally without attorneys being present or with the involvement of juries. A person can appeal a small claims decision made by a magistrate judge to another magistrate. Small claims court trials are designed to be quick and relaxed to allow consumers and business people an inexpensive method of settling minor claims. Any person over eighteen years of age can file a suit in the Small Claims Department. Some examples of the types of cases that might be filed in the Small Claims Department are: a tenant suing for return of his/her security deposit, a laundry customer seeking payment for lost or damaged clothing, an individual seeking payment on a bad check or past due bills.
The greatest number of cases handled by magistrate judges are misdemeanor and infraction cases. Infraction cases constitute the largest share of the total trial court caseload. Infraction and misdemeanor cases come to the court system most frequently in the form of a traffic citation or “ticket” issued by law enforcement to the defendant. The defendant can forfeit bond on selected misdemeanor citations or pay the fixed penalty on an infraction. If they wish to contest the citation, they can appear in court before a judge.