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The Alabama Court System: Hierarchies and Functions

As with many court systems throughout the country, the Alabama Court System is split into three different court branches: the Courts of Appellate Jurisdiction, the Courts of General Jurisdiction, and the Courts of Limited Jurisdiction. The courts themselves are managed at the administrative level of the Administrative Office of Courts and the Administrative Director of Courts. Each of these courts deal with very specific types of infractions and issues.

Alabama’s court system is a Unified Court System, which means that the entirety of its judicial system is interlinked. This also means that the first point of contact for citizens with the Alabama courts is always at the lowest level possible. As decisions reached at this level are not always tenable to both parties, a system of appeals has been emplaced, which allows the decision of the lower courts to be reviewed by the next higher court in the Alabama judicial system.

The branches of the Alabama Court System (from lowest to highest):

1. Courts of Limited Jurisdiction: found in all Alabama counties, Courts of Limited Jurisdiction include a wide variety of different courts that each fulfill different legal and civil functions. These are:
Municipal Courts: these courts have jurisdiction over violations of municipal ordinances, as well as criminal misdemeanors that occur within the limits of that city’s police jurisdiction. Municipal Courts are located in all of Alabama’s cities that have established a municipal court.
Probate Courts: these courts have jurisdiction over all matters dealing with wills, estates, real estate properties, mental illnesses, and adoption. Probate Courts are found within each county.
Small Claims Courts: these courts have jurisdiction over all civil matters in which the disputed dollar value either is or does not exceed $3,000. Unlike other courts in Alabama, self-representation is permitted. Small Claims Courts are found in each county.
District Courts: these courts have jurisdiction over both criminal misdemeanor charges and the preliminary hearings for felony prosecutions. District Courts are also able to hear civil cases in which the dollar value is over $3,000, but does not exceed $10,000. District Courts are found in each county.
Juvenile Courts: these courts have jurisdiction over all civil and criminal matters of minors and young adults that are under the age of 18. This also includes any and all cases in which the child is accused of being a deliquent, dependent, or in need or regular, monitored supervision. Note that the proceedings in Juvenile Court are considered to be confidential. Juvenile Courts are found in each county.

2. Courts of General Jurisdiction: found in all 67 of Alabama’s counties, Courts of General Jurisdiction, also known as Circuit Courts, are granted general jurisdiction over all legal matters. This jurisdiction also includes full felony prosecutions. These courts are also able to handle all jurisdiction over legal matters that are filed within Alabama’s district and juvenile courts, and in all matters in which the dollar value at issue is over $3,000.

Courts of General Jurisdiction are also granted exclusive jurisdiction in Alabama for all civil and criminal matters in which there are disputed funds or properties that are valued at over $10,000. Further, these courts are also granted appellate jurisdiction over particular legal matters that arise from the lower Courts of Limited Jurisdiction.

3. Courts of Appellate Jurisdiction: this court is actually the sum total of three different types of appellate court: the Court of Civil Appeals, the Court of Criminal Appeals, and the Supreme Court of Alabama. Each of these courts have specific functions and jurisdictions, and are generally only able to review legal issues for problems only after they have been decided by one of the lower courts of Alabama. All three Courts of Appellate Jurisdiction are found within the Heflin-Torbert Building in Montgomery, Alabama. Below, each of the three types of the Courts of Appellate Jurisdiction are listed and detailed.

The Court of Civil Appeals: this court is made up from five judges, and is granted jurisdiction in all civil appeals in which the dollar value in dispute does not exceed $50,000. The Court of Civil Appeals also deals with appeals from specific state administrative agencies, particularly those dealing with decisions that relate to worker’s compensation. This court also has jurisdiction over all other civil matters, including annulment, divorce, alimony, child support, adoption, and child custody.

The Court of Criminal Appeals: this court is made up from five judges, and is granted jurisdiction to handle all appeals from both misdemeanor and felony trials or convictions, regardless of the level from which the original decision came.

The Supreme Court of Alabama: this court is made up from a Chief Justice and eight associate justices. The Supreme Court of Alabama is the highest court in Alabama, and has the authority to review any legal or civil matter reached by any of the other courts in the state. Further, the Supreme Court of Alabama also possesses the sole authority to review matters of financial dispute which are valued at over $50,000.

In addition, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama is also responsible for the administration of Alabama’s Unified Judicial System. The Supreme Court itself may also create rules that govern the administration, practice, and procedure of all of Alabama’s lower courts.