The Courts have been in the news a lot lately regarding various election issues. With other high-profile matters in the news, it is probably a good time to brush up on your knowledge of the court systems. This article attempts to provide you with the nuts and bolts of our dual system of courts, federal and state.
The Federal Courts have original jurisdiction over cases related to Federal Statutes, the United States Constitution, and treaties. Certain cases involving state, statutory or common law claims may be brought in the federal courts, as well, if all the plaintiffs are residents of states different from those than all the defendants (also known as “diversity of citizenship”) and the amount in controversary is more than $75,000. This is a very basic definition of a relatively complicated concept – there are books written and full-semester courses taught in law school about federal jurisdiction – but this should give you an idea about what types of cases are brought forth in federal court.
These cases start in a United States District Court. There are three districts in North Carolina: Western, Middle, and Eastern. Judgements from district courts are appealed to the circuit courts of appeals. There are thirteen Circuits in the United States. Eleven of the Circuits are numbered – North Carolina is in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Additionally, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (commonly known as the D.C. Circuit) primarily hears issues of administrative and constitutional law. Finally, the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction over certain appeals, including patent cases and other specialized matters.
The Circuit Courts are usually the last word in a case unless the Supreme Court of the United States issues a Writ of Certiorari to hear the case. This requires the affirmative vote of four of the nine Justices to issue such a writ. The term “certiorari” is Latin for “to be made certain,” and simply means that a court has chosen, based on its own discretion, to grant judicial review of a decision of a lower court.
When district courts issue opinions and make determinations of law, those opinions are not binding on other district or circuit courts. Similarly, circuit courts do not control each other, which means there are some variations – also known as splits – between circuits on certain legal issues. The Fourth Amendment and related privacy issues are the subject of several circuit splits.
These federal cases are handled by Article III judges,which refers to Article III of the United States Constitution. Article III federal judges are nominated by the president and must be confirmed by a majority vote of the United States Senate. They can serve for life as long as they are not impeached and serve on either active or senior status.
District Court judges are selected the same way; however, in addition, the Senate has a rule of senatorial courtesy requiring that the Senators from a state approve of the appointment by the return to the judiciary committee of a “blue slip” indicating their support. This is true regardless of whether the senators are of the same party as the President and gives senators a tremendous amount of influence in deciding who is appointed to the district courts in their states. There are no blue slip rules for Circuit Judges and Supreme Court Justices.
There are nine members of the United States Supreme Court. Each Circuit Court, however, has a different number initially approved by the Congress; for instance, the Fourth Circuit is authorized to have fifteen active judges. Three of those seats have traditionally been known as “North Carolina seats.” While the number each state gets is not dictated by statute, it has historically remained static in our district, with Virginia having four, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina having three each, and West Virginia having two. The Ninth Circuit, by contrast, is authorized to have twenty-nine active judges. Appeals at the circuit level are normally heard by a panel of three judges, unless a majority of the active judges of a circuit vote to hear a case en banc, in which all active judges hear the case on the same panel.
District Courts likewise have different numbers of authorized judges; for instance, the Western District, where Mecklenburg County resides, has six active federal judges. An interesting side note is that the Western District of North Carolina has never had anyone other than white men as Article III judges. District Court judges normally sit individually, however certain election law cases are heard by panels of three judges.
The federal system is also made up of certain non-Article III judges, such as bankruptcy and magistrate court judges. Depending on the selected judge’s specific type of appointment by the Article III judges in their districts or circuits, the number of years they will serve is varied. Their jurisdiction and numbers are beyond the scope of this article.
The courts most people encounter in their daily lives are our State Courts. North Carolina has what is called a unified Court System, which is the third branch of Government, established by Article IV of the North Carolina Constitution. The North Carolina Constitution establishes three divisions: a District Court Division, a Superior Court Division, and an Appellate Division.
- District Courts
The state District Courts of North Carolina have exclusive jurisdiction over civil cases involving less than $10,000. These are jury trials and can be appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. District Court judges also conduct bench trials in all misdemeanor and traffic cases (appeals from those criminal cases are sent to the Superior Court for a jury trial). District Court judges, sitting without a jury, also hear all divorce, custody, alimony, equitable distribution, termination of parental rights, juvenile, and involuntary commitment cases. Appeals from those judgements go directly to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Generally, district court judges only hear cases in the judicial district from which they are elected. Additionally, state district court judges usually hear cases as the only judge presiding.
Each division of North Carolina district courts has a unique number of judges as established by the General Assembly. For instance, Mecklenburg County, the 26th District, has twenty-one District Court Judges elected in single-member seats county-wide – in partisan elections –for terms of four years.
- Superior Courts
The Superior Court Division hears all civil cases (other than domestic relations cases detailed above) involving claims for more than $10,000, all felony criminal cases, and appeals from district court proceedings in criminal and traffic cases. All trials in Superior Court are jury trials in front of twelve jurors. Appeals from Superior Court cases are heard by the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
As with district courts, Superior Court districts have different numbers of judges as established by the General Assembly. Mecklenburg County has eight
Superior Court Judges, elected in eight separate divisions of the 26th judicial districts in partisan elections for eight-year terms. Also elected by a 1/8 of the county, the Mecklenburg Superior Court judges, in six-month rotations, hold court in districts throughout the 5th judicial division that stretches from Mecklenburg County to the North Carolina/Tennessee state line. Superior Court judges generally preside alone, however in cases involving challenges as to whether certain statutes are constitutional or challenges to election districts, they sit in panels of three. The three judges for each panel are designated by the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.
If a vacancy occurs in a District or Superior Court seat, the Governor appoints a successor to serve until the next election for members of the General Assembly.
- Other State Courts
In addition to “Resident Superior Court Judges,” the Superior Court Division also contains a number of “Business Court Judges” that hear cases designated as complex business cases. There are currently five business court judges with one other seat approved, therefore. Those judges are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the State Senate for a term of five years. Appeals from Business Court cases go directly to the Supreme Court of North Carolina.
There are also some “Special Superior Court Judges” that are appointed by the Governor, with confirmation by the Senate. These Special Judges are not attached to any district and are assigned to hold court statewide by the Chief Justice or their designee. They also serve five-year terms. Business and Special Judges can be reappointed once their terms expire if it is the pleasure of the then sitting Governor to do so, and their reappointment must be confirmed by the Senate.
There are also magistrate judges, who hear cases in the district courts, are appointed by the Senior Resident Superior Court upon nomination of the Clerk of Court and are supervised by the Chief District Court Judge in a district. This article does not detail their duties; however, their decision can be appealed to the District Court.
Finally, in the trial divisions, the Clerk of Superior Court acts as the ex-officio Judge of Probate dealing with estate matters. Clerks’ decisions may be appealed to the Superior Court.
- Appellate Courts
The Appellate Court Division consists of the Supreme Court of North Carolina and the North Carolina Court of Appeals. There are seven justices on the Supreme Court and fifteen judges on the Court of Appeals. These judges and justices are all elected in statewide partisan elections and serve for eight-year terms. If there
is a vacancy in these offices, they are filled by the Governor and then must run at the next election for members of the General Assembly for a full eight-year term. An interesting side note is that, while the Supreme Court of North Carolina was established in 1818, the Court of Appeals was established in 1967.
The Court of Appeals sits in panels of three judges who hear cases from the District and Superior Courts, the North Carolina Industrial Commission, the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings, and the Utilities Commission (except as detailed below). This is the court of last resort, and final word, for approximately 85 to 90 percent of the appeals heard. There is also a provision that the Court of Appeals can vote to hear a case en banc,however the Court has not yet used that provision.
The Supreme Court of North Carolina sits as a panel of all seven members. Justices are required to hear cases from the Business Court, criminal cases where the death penalty is imposed, general rate cases from the Utilities Commission, all cases in which there is 2-1 decision with a written dissent from the Court of Appeals, and appeals from the Court of Appeals involving a state constitutional question. For other cases to reach the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court must agree to take the cases via certiorari or a petition for discretionary review. In all other cases, the decision of the Court of Appeals is final.
The decision of the Supreme Court of North Carolina is final in all cases that do not involve issues related to the United States Constitution; in those cases, a party may seek certiorari from the Supreme Court of the United States.
I hope this gives you a quick overview and refresher of how our various Courts are composed, and a basis to understand their importance in your everyday life.
Judge Arrowood is the only Mecklenburg County resident in the Appellate Division of the judiciary. Judge Arrowood was a law clerk, staff attorney and head of the staff at the North Carolina Court of Appeals prior to spending 26 years as a commercial litigator at James, McElroy & Diehl, PA in Charlotte. He was initially appointed a Special Superior Court Judge and Court of Appeals Judge by Governor Michael Easley in 2007. When Judge Arrowood lost the election to retain his seat he returned to private practice at James McElroy & Diehl. In 2017, Governor Roy A. Cooper reappointed Judge Arrowood to a vacancy to the Court. In 2018, Judge Arrowood won an eight year term on the Court of Appeals, becoming the first openly LGBTQ person to win a statewide election in the South. As a side note, Judge Arrowood won the most votes of any other candidate on the NC statewide ballot in The 2018 election cycle.