CHAPTER 2. COLORADO COURT SYSTEM Updated by Honorable Julie E. Anderson

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1 CHAPTER 2 COLORADO COURT SYSTEM Updated by Honorable Julie E. Anderson THE LEGAL SYSTEM IN COLORADO The Colorado Constitution defines the structure and gives the power to the three units that comprise our state government: the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. The Colorado Constitution also provides specific legal rights to all Colorado citizens. The executive branch of the government, the Governor, works with the state legislature, the General Assembly, to create laws that provide additional rights and responsibilities to the citizens of Colorado. The Colorado Constitution also provides for the establishment of state courts that make up the judicial branch of our government. These courts play a major role in our tripartite (or three-unit) system by resolving disputes between individuals, and between individuals and the state. DIFFERENCES IN CIVIL AND CRIMINAL LAW IN COLORADO Courts have the power to resolve many types of conflicts. The cases that a court may decide usually involve either criminal law or civil law. Civil law is applied when private parties cannot settle a disagreement. For example, if someone accidentally runs over your bicycle with a car or collides with your family car, you could use civil law to get them to pay for the damage. Criminal law is applied when someone has violated a statute in committing a crime, such as murder, theft, child abuse, or selling illegal drugs. Usually, civil law and criminal law are very different. However, the same circumstances may lead to both civil and criminal actions. For example, if someone hits you with their fists, that person might be charged with battery by the police and face prosecution by the district or city attorney for violating a state or city criminal law. Additionally, you might file a civil suit against this person to collect any damages (such as medical bills) you suffer as a result of the battery. JURISDICTION OF A COURT When people disagree, they have the option to have that disagreement resolved through the court system. The power of a court to hear and decide a disagreement between parties is called jurisdiction. If a court has jurisdiction, then that court can decide the case. 4

2 There are two types of jurisdiction: original and appellate. Original jurisdiction is the power of a court to resolve a dispute that has not yet been decided. A trial court is a court of original jurisdiction. Appellate jurisdiction is the power of a court to review the decision of a lower court (the trial court). If a trial court has decided a case, that decision can be challenged in an appellate court. Factors Determining Jurisdiction Three factors establish whether a court has original jurisdiction: 1. The court s jurisdiction has geographical boundaries. For a court to have jurisdiction, the case must involve a question that occurred within the geographic boundaries of the court, typically the county in which the court is located, or has some special relationship to the court. 2. A court must have jurisdiction over the parties to the controversy. This is called personal jurisdiction. A person can be subject to the court s authority if he or she lives within that court s geographical boundary or did something that requires them to respond to a matter within the court s authority. 3. Courts are limited to deciding disagreements concerning certain matters. This is called subject matter jurisdiction. For example, district courts in Colorado have general jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases, whereas county court jurisdiction is restricted to certain matters. TYPES OF COURTS IN COLORADO There are many types of courts in Colorado. The courts are arranged in a hierarchical structure. The most important distinction between courts is subject matter jurisdiction. Trial courts of limited jurisdiction, such as small claims court, decide cases involving minor criminal matters or claims that do not involve large sums of money. Trial courts of general jurisdiction are permitted to decide all other cases. Appellate courts are allowed to review the decisions of trial courts when the party bringing the appeal alleges that error has occurred by a lower court in deciding the case. In Colorado, there are state courts and federal courts. State courts enforce the Constitution and laws of the state in which they reside and the U.S. Constitution and laws. Federal courts exercise the jurisdiction assigned to them by federal statutes and the U.S. Constitution. State judges are selected under the Colorado Constitution s merit selection system that removes judges from politics. Federal judges are nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. 5

3 STATE COURTS Municipal Court Municipal or city courts deal with violations of city law committed within the city limits. This trial court is created by a city and can decide only cases involving violations of city laws, such as traffic, shoplifting, dog bites, and disturbance violations. In many cases, parties before a municipal court have a right to a jury trial. A city may appoint as many municipal judges as necessary to handle the cases. For a person to be appointed a municipal court judge, one must have graduated from high school or attained the equivalent of a high school education. An appointment, however, is likely to go to a person who is trained in law. Appeals from a municipal court decision are made to a county court or district court. District court and county court judges must be licensed attorneys. Small Claims Court The small claims court, a division of the county court, only decides civil cases involving amounts less than $ 7,500. In small claims court, there is no right to a jury. Usually, individuals argue their cases without attorneys, and court sessions are held during the day and evening ( night court ). The court is not bound by formal rules of procedure or technical rules of evidence, and the court may be presided over by a referee or magistrate instead of a county court judge. County Court This court can hear cases regarding matters that arise within Colorado and concern an amount in controversy not more than $ 15,000. Thus, county courts have limited jurisdiction. County courts also can entertain some traffic and misdemeanor criminal matters. Every county in the state has a county court, with the number of county court judges varying depending on the caseload of the county. With the exception of Denver County Court, county court judges are appointed by the Governor from a list of three nominees selected by a citizen commission. Denver County Court judges are appointed by the mayor from a list of three nominees selected by a citizen commission. All county court judges serve an initial two-year term and then must stand for retention for a four-year term. Juries are available in county court for some cases. Appeals from a county court decision are made to a district court. District Court A district court is a trial court of general jurisdiction. District Courts hear divorce cases, felony criminal cases, and civil cases. District court judges are appointed by the Governor from a list of three nominees selected by a citizen commission. They serve an initial two-year term by appointment and then must stand for retention for a six-year term. The state of Colorado is divided into 22 judicial districts, but each district court has statewide jurisdiction regardless of county or district boundaries. Whether a case can be heard in a particular district court depends on statutes and rules governing personal jurisdiction over the parties in dispute. 6

4 Colorado Court of Appeals The Colorado Court of Appeals is an appellate court created by statute. It is comprised of 16 judges and has the jurisdiction to review most district court decisions. Judges of the Colorado Court of Appeals must have the same qualifications as justices of the Colorado Supreme Court. A judge is appointed by the Governor to the Court of Appeals from a list of three nominees selected by a citizen commission. After two years in office, the judge stands for retention on the general election ballot for an eight-year term. The Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court appoints a judge of the Court of Appeals to act as chief judge. The Court of Appeals consists of divisions of three judges each to hear all cases that may come before it. The Court of Appeals is located in Denver, but any division of the Court of Appeals may sit in any county seat in Colorado for the purpose of hearing oral argument in cases before the division. The Court of Appeals decision is final unless the Colorado Supreme Court agrees to review the case. Colorado Supreme Court This appellate court, which is created by the Colorado Constitution, often is referred to as the Court of Last Resort. The Colorado Supreme Court generally has discretion in what cases it hears. However, the court is required to hear certain appeals, such as death penalty cases and water cases, because of specific statutes passed by the General Assembly. The Colorado Supreme Court has original jurisdiction to grant extraordinary relief on a discretionary basis during the course of a lower court proceeding when an issue of public importance is involved and justice requires intervention before a regular appeal. Seven justices serve on the Colorado Supreme Court. Appointments to the Colorado Supreme Court are made by the Governor from a list of three nominees selected by citizen commission. After two-years in office, the justice stands for retention on the general election ballot for a ten-year term. The justices of the Colorado Supreme Court elect one justice to act as Chief Justice. In addition to reviewing cases, the Chief Justice has many administrative functions, such as supervising all other Colorado courts on behalf of the Supreme Court. The Colorado Supreme Court is responsible for discipline of attorneys. An independent judicial discipline commission is responsible for disciplining any judge who has violated laws or canons of judicial conduct. FEDERAL COURTS Federal District Court The United States is divided into approximately 96 federal judicial districts. The State of Colorado makes up one of these judicial districts. These federal districts are similar in structure and function to the Colorado state judicial districts. Each judicial district has a district court, but each federal court has national jurisdiction. There are approximately 550 federal district judges. Federal district judges are appointed by the President of the United States. Federal district courts have jurisdiction over cases involving federal law, citizens of two or more different states, or the U.S. government as a party to the action. There is at least one federal district court in every 7

5 state. Whether a matter can be heard in a particular district is determined by statutes and rules governing venue. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals The United States is divided into 13 judicial circuits. Each court reviews cases from the U.S. district courts in the circuit. Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming are in the Tenth Judicial Circuit of the United States. These are appellate courts that review the decisions of federal district courts. Judges to these courts are appointed for life by the President of the United States, subject to confirmation by the United States Senate. There are ten full-time judges on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Former members of the court may take senior status and may sit on assigned cases. Decisions of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. United States Supreme Court Federal courts are created by federal statutes, but the U.S. Supreme Court is created by the U.S. Constitution. This is the highest court in the United States, and decides constitutional questions, questions involving federal law, disputes between states, appeals from state supreme courts and matters within its original jurisdiction such as interstate water compacts. Matters are presented to the court for review by a petition for a writ of certiorari. The Supreme Court then chooses which cases it will hear. There are nine justices on the Supreme Court, who are appointed for life by the President of the United States, subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. HOW COURTS APPLY LAW When a court decides a dispute, it applies both the relevant statutory law (bills created and passed by the legislature and enacted into law with the consent of the Executive or veto override), and the common law (based on the precedent of prior cases). Thus, for Colorado law, courts in Colorado will use the Colorado Revised Statutes, a multi-volume set of books which contain the codified laws, to see if a statute applies to the facts of the case. The courts in Colorado also will refer to past decisions by the Colorado Court of Appeals or the Colorado Supreme Court (printed in chronological order in books called Reporters) to find out if a Colorado court previously has considered and ruled on the issue before the court. The statutes and reporters may be found in public libraries, the Supreme Court Law Library, and in law school and courthouse libraries. The federal system operates in a similar manner, with federal courts relying on federal statutes (passed by Congress) and federal cases. However, Colorado law also will be relevant and helpful to the Federal Court for the District of Colorado and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals because those courts are sometimes called upon to decide state law in the course of a proceeding that can be brought in federal court. Rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court are controlling and relevant in any court in the land. In these ways, the laws of Colorado and the federal court system work in tandem with each other. 8

6 The Role of the Judge in the Court Judges are a very important part of the court system. Judges control the conduct of the people in the courtroom and try to make sure the hearing or trial is fair. Judges oversee all matters in trial courts and appellate courts. Justices oversee all matters of the Colorado Supreme Court. All judges are required to act fairly and impartially, and may be removed from a case or disciplined if they do not. They are not supposed to let their personal biases prejudice their decisions. Juries Used in Colorado Courts There are two types of juries: grand juries and petit juries. A grand jury consists of twelve to twenty-three persons who are summoned to hear evidence presented by the prosecutor in a criminal case and decide whether an indictment should be issued and prosecution pursued. A petit jury is a trial jury consisting of three to twelve persons: twelve for felony criminal trials, six for civil, misdemeanor and some traffic trials, and three for other traffic trials. The parties sometimes may agree to a smaller number of jurors, but never fewer than three. In each county, the jury commission maintains a master list consisting of all voter registration lists for the county, supplemented with names from other lists of county residents, which the Supreme Court shall designate from time to time. The jury commission for the county maintains a master jury pool into which the commission places names of prospective jurors taken from the master list. These names are publicly drawn at random when the court requires. The clerk of the court mails a summons and juror qualification form to every prospective juror whose name is drawn from the master jury pool. If the prospective juror is qualified to serve on the jury, the jury commission puts that person s name in the qualified jury pool. Qualified jurors are required to report for duty and serve on a jury, if chosen. After the jury has been summoned to appear, the attorneys for the parties to the case have the opportunity to interview the potential jurors. This is known as voir dire. Voir dire is a French phrase that means to see the truth. Voir dire is a process by which the judge and attorneys have the chance to ask the jurors questions to find out if they can be fair and impartial. If an attorney does not feel a particular potential juror will be fair, or if the potential juror knows someone involved in the case, the attorney can ask the judge not to allow that person to sit on the jury. In addition, each side to a case can preempt a potential juror from serving without regard to a showing of possible partiality. The number of peremptory challenges is established by court rules. Jurors have a lot of responsibility and must act appropriately. Jurors are responsible for making all determinations of fact and, therefore, are required to be objective in deciding such issues. To make sure that jurors are objective, jurors are expected to discuss the case only with each other, considering all of the evidence they heard during trial and applying the law that the judge provided to them. 9

7 Other Court Personnel and Job Responsibilities The clerk of the court is responsible for assisting judges in administrative matters. A court bailiff announces the cases opens and closes court, takes charge of juror needs, and generally helps the judge manage the business of the court. For additional information about the organizational and operation of the court system, pick up the helpful, free brochure published by the Colorado Judicial Department, You and Your Colorado Court. It is available at the City and County Building, 1437 Bannock Street, Denver, Colorado, 80202, at the Colorado Supreme Court, 2 East 14 th Avenue, Denver, Colorado, 80203, or from the State Court Administrator s Office, 1301 Pennsylvania Avenue, Denver, Colorado, You can also visit the website of the Colorado Judicial Branch at ALTERNATIVE DISPUTE RESOLUTION IN COLORADO In Colorado, there are ways of resolving disputes other than through a trial. In a criminal case, the defendant may plea bargain with the prosecutor. Plea bargaining is a process by which the defendant and prosecutor negotiate a mutually satisfactory settlement of the case, subject to the approval of the trial court. Usually, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to one crime if the prosecutor agrees to drop charges for another crime. In civil cases, the plaintiff and defendant may decide on a settlement. Parties to a civil action may also consent to arbitration. Arbitration is a method by which an independent person is hired to hear and decide the dispute outside of the court. Arbitration is similar to trial but is not held in a courtroom and is less formal. In many commercial business contracts, arbitration is used to resolve disputes in order to save cost and time. An arbitrator s decision is binding on all parties and will not be set aside except in rare instances. Mediation involves bringing in an objective outside person to help parties to a dispute settle their differences. Typically, a mediator is not granted authority by the parties to make a decision. Mediation services are frequently used in divorce cases. Recently, legislation in Colorado has been passed to encourage alternative types of dispute resolution to be considered by parties engaged in litigation. Arbitration, mediation or settlement conferences during or before court proceedings have the potential of providing a costeffective and less time-consuming alternative to an actual trial, as long as all parties are willing participants in the procedure. A trial court may retain its jurisdiction until the conclusion of the alternative dispute resolution process so that a trial will proceed if the case cannot be otherwise resolved. 10

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