What court do I use in my legal dispute? Although this is the one of the most basic questions in any legal matter, surprisingly few outside of the legal profession know which court has jurisdiction over certain matters. Hopefully, this column will provide you with a basic understanding of how our court system works.
Before we discuss the different courts in Mississippi, you need to know that there are only two types of legal matters–civil and criminal. Criminal cases, as the name suggests, deal with the prosecution of crimes. Criminal cases may be brought only by the State, not individuals, and they seek to imprison and/or fine a person who is convicted or pleads guilty. In contrast, civil cases are any cases that are not prosecutions for crimes. Unlike criminal cases, any person and/or business (not only the State) may initiate a civil case.
We will begin our analysis with justice court. Each county has a justice court, and it can be fairly referred to as “small claims court,” although that is not officially its name. On the criminal side, the justice courts have jurisdiction over misdemeanors, the setting of bail (often called bond), preliminary hearings, and initial appearances by those accused of crime. On the civil side, justice court can only hear disputes involving money damages of $3,500.00 or less. Also on the civil side, the justice courts hear eviction matters. Justice court judges are elected every four years, and are not required to be lawyers. For certain justice court matters, litigants can get a six-person jury to decide their case, but the person who wants the jury must pay the jury-related expenses. If a litigant is unhappy with the result in justice court, then the decision is appealed to circuit court.
The next step on the ladder is county court. These courts were created by our legislature in the 1990’s for counties with larger populations. Accordingly, most Mississippi counties don’t have them (Union County included). For that reason, I won’t go into great detail about their powers, but, suffice it to say that, on the criminal side, they have the power to hear any criminal matter that a justice court could hear. On the civil side, they also have jurisdiction over any matter involving money damages of not more than $200,000.00. County court judges must be a lawyer with at least five years experience, and at least 26 years old. Importantly, you can get a jury trial in county court.
Chancery court are courts of “equity”, which is a ten-dollar legal word for “fairness”. Chancery courts have a broad range of cases that they can hear. No criminal cases are heard in chancery court. Under the Mississippi Constitution, there are four specific kinds of cases that chancery court has the sole authority to hear: 1.) family law cases (divorce, child custody, guardianships, etc.), 2.) cases involving wills and estates, 3.) cases dealing with minors’ business, and, 4.) lunacy cases. However, please remember that the power of chancery court is not limited to those four kinds of cases. For instance, many land disputes belong in chancery court.
Due to its jurisdiction over family law and estate cases, Chancery court is by far the Court with which most Mississippians have had some type of contact. As with county court judges, chancery judges (called Chancellors) must have five years of law practice experience, and be at least 26 years old. Notably, litigants in chancery court do not get a jury trial, except in rare situations involving a contested will.
Circuit courts hear both civil and felony criminal cases. If you have a legal (not equitable) dispute of over $3,500.00 (and there is no county court in your county), then your case will be heard in circuit court. The vast majority of circuit court cases have juries, unless the litigants agree to waive a jury and have the judge decide the case. The requirements to serve as a circuit judge are identical to the requirements for county court judges and chancellors. Most persons, at some point, have contact with circuit court due to the occasional call to jury duty.
If a litigant is unhappy with the result he gets in circuit or chancery court, then he must appeal to a higher (appellate) court. Mississippi has two appellate courts: the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. In most cases, the first appeal is to the Supreme Court, which can hear the case or refer it to the Court of Appeals. When a litigant appeals, he does not get to re-try the case. Instead the appeal judges review the transcript of the trial in the lower court, and make a decision by applying the law to the facts proved at trial.
Unfortunately, there is not space to go into more detail about Mississippi’s court system. As with any legal explanation, there are rules, exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions. However, if you leave this with a better understanding of the system, then this column will have served its purpose.