Judicial Branch

The present unified judicial system is the product of a 1972 constitutional amendment and the implementing legislation adopted in subsequent years.

At the top of the system is a five justice Supreme Court. Until 1980, justices were elected for eight-year terms Under a constitutional amendment adopted that year, Supreme Court justices no longer file petitions to have their names on the ballot, but are instead subject to a retention election every eight years. All vacancies on the Court are filled by gubernatorial appointment upon the recommendation of the judicial qualifications commission. Justices represent each of five geographic Supreme Court districts, and they elect among themselves the chief justice.

The Supreme Court has limited original jurisdiction. In practice, its work is almost entirely appellate. In addition, the "Governor has the authority to require opinions upon important questions of law involved in the exercise of his executive power and upon solemn occasions."

The state is also divided into seven circuit court districts, each circuit electing a proportionate share of the thirty-eight circuit court judges, which are the backbone of the system. Judges are elected on a non-partisan basis for eight year terms. Vacancies are filled by gubernatorial appointment upon the recommendation of the judicial qualifications commission.

The circuit court is considered the keystone of the state's trial system and has broad jurisdiction. It has exclusive jurisdiction over the trial of felonies and appellate jurisdiction as specified by law. In civil matters, it tries cases that are beyond the jurisdiction of the magistrate courts. It is the only court which may grant divorces or annulments of marriage and determine the boundaries or title of real property.

Magistrate courts exist in each of the judicial circuits and function under the supervision of the presiding judge of the circuit court. Each circuit is authorized to have at least one full-time law-trained magistrate. Additionally, the presiding judge of each circuit is authorized to appoint lay magistrates to provide added judicial service for the counties and municipalities. The magistrate courts have limited jurisdiction.