By Zachary J. Thornley

In Arizona we have a hierarchy of courts. Each county has a superior court. Superior courts are courts of jurisdiction over all crimes, civil matters, family law matters, probate matters and juvenile matters. Arizona’s superior courts don’t oversee any federal matters.

Arizona also has many courts of limited jurisdiction. The courts of limited jurisdiction in Arizona are city, municipal, magistrate, and justice courts. These courts are called courts of limited jurisdiction because they are limited in scope to the type and kind of matters that they oversee. For example, courts of limited jurisdiction cannot hear felony matter cases. Those cases must be held in the superior courts.

Arizona also has a number of various different administrative courts and governing bodies. Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) has their own administrative court. That court is limited in scope to just hearing drivers license issues or possible suspensions.

Superior court judges are all law trained (lawyers) and have likely practiced law at some point in their career prior to becoming a judge. All city and magistrate court judges are law trained as well. However, justice court judges may not be law trained. Justices of the peace and their jurisdictions are concepts that stem from when Arizona was just a territory. In rural America (the wild west) it wasn’t always possible to find a lawyer to act as a judge in every little town. However, it was still necessary to administer justice or have a person who could settle disputes arising from the local folks in the area.

All justice court judges are elected. There is no requirement for the judge to be trained legally. Some of the justices of the peace are former attorneys and some are not. The justice court judges jurisdiction often times is concurrent with a particular cities jurisdiction.

In essence, the judicial system overlaps. Additionally, the justice court criminal justice system is staffed with county attorneys whereas the city court has city attorneys doing the prosecuting.
The justice courts are also courts of limited jurisdiction in civil matters due to an Arizona State Constitutional limitation on the dollar amount those courts are allowed to adjudicate. Arizona Constitution Article 6 § 32 provides that civil jurisdiction of limited jurisdiction courts shall not exceed the sum of $10,000, exclusive of interest and costs. Lawsuits involving dollar amounts exceeding $10,000 have to originate in the county superior court or in certain instances in a federal court. Appeals from a limited jurisdiction court can be made to the superior court in its respective jurisdiction.

Arizona also has two divisions of courts of appeals that usually hears appeals from the superior courts. Division 1 is based in Phoenix and Division 2 is based in Tucson. Those appellate courts hear cases within their respective divisions. The appeals courts can hear appeals cases or special action cases.

Finally, in instances where a party wants to appeal the appeals court decision, they can take the case up to the Arizona Supreme Court. Unless there are U.S. Constitutional issues to be resolved, the Arizona Supreme Court is the last stop for most all cases that get that far. Having a working knowledge of Arizona’s court system can be helpful. Additionally, a skilled attorney can guide their clients through the system.