Washington Court System

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In the state of Washington, there are several judicial entities that hear civil as well as criminal cases. While a matter will usually start in a court of the lowest order, defendants who believe that justice was not meted out to them can appeal against a verdict in a higher court.The judicial system in the state of Washington is divided into four levels; the courts at each level have various and differing powers and the judges who preside over matters in these tribunals serve varying terms.

The judicial system and its players

All matters brought in front of Washington Courts can be classified as civil or criminal. Civil cases are those that pertain to disputes between two individuals, private entities, government bodies, corporation etc. For instance, a case arising out of a dispute between a landlord and a tenant is a civil matter as are issues relating to marriage dissolution, child support, contract disputes, professional liability and breach of warranty.
In contrast, a criminal case pitches the state government against an individual who is accused of committing a crime. Because any criminal activity is deemed to be an offense against the society at large, the government acts as the plaintiff since it is charged with safeguarding the interests of the community.
In both civil and criminal matters, the verdict is given based upon the evidence presented before the court. Criminal matters are segregated into two categories:
  • Misdemeanors: This refers to lesser crimes such as DUI, theft, disorderly conduct etc.
  • Felonies: These are crimes that are punishable by more than one year of incarceration.Larceny, homicide, rape, aggravated assault, burglary are all felonies.
The prosecution has to prove to the court, beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused has indeed committed the crime for him/her to be sentenced in the case.

District and Municipal Courts

These are tribunals on the lowest rung of the judicial system; counties have district courts while cities have municipal courts; both these justice entities have the same power and authority.
There are 39 district courts in the state of Washington, one for each county along with numerous municipal courts. These are limited jurisdiction courts that only hear matters pertaining to misdemeanor and civil suits in which the claim does not exceed $5000. Judges of district and municipal courts serve a term of four years

Superior Courts

Every county in the state of Washington also has a superior court; these judicial bodies are authorized to preside over matters that are beyond the scope of the district and municipal courts. So, there are 39 superior courts in Washington; these trial courts have general jurisdiction.

Judges of superior courts preside over cases pertaining to child custody, divorce and law suits where the claim amount exceeds $50,000. These courts also hold trial in felony cases. Because they are on a higher level than district and municipal courts, they also act as a court of appeals where a verdict delivered at the district/municipal level can be challenged. Superior court judges are elected for a four year term.

Court of Appeals

These tribunals consider appeals filed against judgments of the superior courts. Unlike the Supreme Court of Washington, which has discretionary jurisdiction, all defendants who have been found guilty can approach the Court of Appeals. In the state of Washington there are three divisions of this judicial body based in Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane.

The Court of Appeals has mandatory jurisdiction as explained above hence it hears civil as well as criminal matters appealed from all superior courts across the state. The judges of the Court of appeals serve six year terms.

The Supreme Court

The highest judicial entity in the state, the Supreme Court of Washington has discretionary jurisdiction which means that they can choose which cases to hear. Located at the Washington State Capital campus in Olympia, the Washington Supreme Court has a chief justice and 8 justices who are elected to six years terms. Because terms are staggered, three members of the bench are elected every two years. The mandatory age for retirement of a Supreme Court justice is 75 years.

Most cases heard by the Supreme Court appeals against a verdict/decision given by the Washington Court of Appeals. The court also presides over matters that are known as original cases which are writs to force or prevent an official of the government from performing his duties.