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Public librarian/patron question: Can we get a quick overview of what types of cases/issues are addressed at each level of court – city, county, state, federal?

Answer: There probably is no such thing as a “quick” overview. In Oregon there are several different types of courts. Limited jurisdiction courts such as municipal courts or justice courts have, as you might guess, limited jurisdiction. They typically hear cases involving traffic tickets and in some areas, they might hear cases involving traffic crimes like driving while suspended or driving under the influence of intoxicants. Limited jurisdiction courts do not normally hear criminal cases, divorces, or larger civil suits.

It used to be the custom in Oregon to refer to the county governing body as the “county court” and in some counties that is still the practice. The county board of commissioners or county court has very limited jurisdiction to hear land use matters (and some other issues) in the same way that a city council hears zoning issues.

The state court system has four major components; the circuit courts, which are the trial courts for each judicial district in the state, the Court of Appeals, which is the intermediate level appellate court, the state Supreme Court, the highest level in the state. The fourth component is the Tax Court, which is limited to tax matters, but the limitation is not so narrow as it might seem. In a typical state court civil case in which A sues B, the trial would be held by a Circuit Court. The loser might then have a right to appeal the outcome to the Court of Appeals. The loser in the Court of Appeals could petition for review by the state Supreme Court, which might decline to review the case, letting the appellate ruling stand.

Remember that there are also administrative trials, like Workers’ Compensation, the Land Use Board of Appeals, and the Employment Relations Board, where cases are heard by administrative law judges.

In the federal system, the trial level courts are federal District Courts. The appellate level courts are Circuit Courts of Appeal (Oregon is within the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals) and the highest level is the U.S. Supreme Court. There are also specialized courts within the federal system, like the Court of International Trade, the Court of Claims, and a variety of administrative law hearings boards.
Federal courts hear matters involving federal law, claims against the U.S. government, claims involving interstate transactions, and criminal cases involving violations of federal law. (Thank you again to my favorite anonymous (but not to me 🙂 Oregon county law librarian!)

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