The judicial system in the U.S. features a tiered court system. The municipal court is at the base of this system and ranks lower than the state, district, and federal courts. Still, it plays an influential role in the American judiciary and helps maintain order in the boundary it serves. Discover more about municipal courts and what role they play in the American judicial system.
What is the Municipal Court?
A municipal court, sometimes called a city court, is a court that serves a specified community, city, or county. The municipal court building is typically located in the county seat and may house the county and city government offices. This court oversees cases that originate within the boundary that the court serves. It cannot hear cases from outside the jurisdiction without a proper basis such as a change of venue for a jury trial.
Municipal courts are in session during regular weekday business hours, which are Monday through Friday from 8:00 in the morning until 5:00 in the evening. The courts often close to observe city, county, state, and federal holidays. They rarely operate during weekends except to attend to administrative tasks.
A county or city municipal court consists of two divisions, the judicial division, and the administrative division. The administrative division oversees the daily operations and safety of the court while the judicial division attends to the cases being presented and heard in the courtrooms.
Staffing within Municipal Courts
The question of what is municipal court supposed to do within a community can be answered by learning more about the staff who work there. Arguably, the foremost staff members at the courthouse are the municipal judges. A municipal court judge serves for a term of six years. He or she is elected by the citizens of the county or city that the court serves. The judgeship has no set number of term limits, allowing judges to continue their employment in the courts for as long as the voters see fit to keep them there.
Municipal court judges are required to have extensive expertise and experience in the legal industry, ideally having worked as private or public attorneys prior to running for office. They should be admitted to the state bar and have few if any disciplinary infractions on their record. They also should have graduated from an accredited and reputable law school.
Once installed in their offices, the judges hear cases assigned to them on a rotating basis. They may hear hundreds or even thousands of cases each year depending on the size and population of the jurisdiction that they serve.
They are trained and kept in check by the administrative division of the court system in which they preside. Their judgments can also be overruled by state, district, and federal appellate judges.
Court clerks also work alongside the judges at the municipal court and play an important role in the daily operations of the court itself. Clerks are responsible for overseeing the actual court processes and handle such tasks like sending out notifications of upcoming court dates and court orders. They also summon juries for upcoming jury trials.
Clerks likewise swear in defendants, witnesses, and plaintiffs as well as keep a record of the proceeding minutes of trials. They are required by law to compile monthly court statistics as requested by the state’s court administrative offices. They also forward records to the appellate courts during appeals.
Court clerks are considered to be vital to the operations and integrity of the court system in which they are employed. They are often called the historian or keeper of the court because of the role they play in keeping detailed minutes and records of the proceedings that occur within the municipal court.
They routinely carry out other functions such as issue a municipal court number to each case on the docket. They also can accept a municipal court payment for fines, penalties, or municipal court tickets.
Other staff members found within municipal courts throughout the country include secretaries, receptionists, and janitorial staff. These lower ranked yet still vital staff members influence how well the court functions each day. It is also increasingly common to find security personnel or law enforcement officers posted at the entrances and exits of a courthouse.
People who have business with the court must pass through metal detectors and undergo a security check before they are allowed into the building and courtroom. The increasing presence of law enforcement or guards in courthouses across the U.S. stems from the growing number of security risks and threats presented to these buildings on any given day.
Cases Heard in Municipal Courts
Municipal courts hear a variety of cases that do not meet the criteria to be heard at higher levels of courts. Judges preside over cases that pertain to:
- civil arguments
- minor criminal offenses
- traffic offenses
- environmental or housing concerns
- family disputes
For civil cases to be heard in municipal courts, they must have less than $15,000 at stake. These types of cases can involve debt collections, small claims, and contractual disputes.
Traffic cases heard at this level of the court system must be minor and not involve situations of expensive damages or wrongful death. A judge can hear a traffic case that involves a hit and run accident with no property or personal damage or loss of life.
Judges can also preside over cases involving traffic violations like driving without a license or proof of insurance. People who have traffic tickets can also pay them at this court.
It is not uncommon for municipal judges to preside over minor criminal cases as well. Some of the most common criminal cases heard at this level of court involve:
- city ordinance violations
- public intoxication
- driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- disorderly conduct
- petty theft
- simple assault
Cases involving family disputes, child abuse, or domestic violence can also be heard in municipal courts. Judges at this level of the judicial system cannot preside over divorce or custody disputes, however.
Finally, municipal courts can hear cases involving housing and environmental issues. Judges assigned to these cases typically must have a certain level of expertise in them. They are rarely assigned to judges who preside primarily over traffic or civil cases.
Some of the typical environmental and housing cases that make their way into a municipal courtroom involve:
- building or housing code violations or disputes
- health and safety code violations
- landlord and tenant disputes
- fishing and gaming violations
As mentioned, city and county judges can hear hundreds if not thousands of cases each year. While they be assigned to specialty cases like those involving environmental or housing disputes, they routinely are assigned to cases on a rotating basis. People who have business with the court cannot request one judge over the other and instead essentially have to take their chances on what judge will be assigned to their legal matter.
Municipal courts play important roles in the communities in which they are located. These city or county courts handle cases that do not qualify for being heard in state, district, or federal courts. They are staffed by elected judges, clerks, and other staff who are dedicated to maintaining the safety and order of the city or county.
Cities and counties throughout the U.S. maintain their safety and order in part with their municipal courts. If you have ever wondered what is a municipal court, you may benefit by learning exactly what purpose this court serves and why it is an important part of the American judicial system.
You can even answer the question of where is a municipal court near me by going to the website of the city or county in which you live. The court may also have its own website where you can do a municipal court case search or discover if you have any municipal court warrants issued for you or your loved ones.
Municipal courts primarily handle cases involving minor criminal or traffic violations, civil disputes, housing or environmental code violations, and rarely family disputes involving domestic violence or child abuse. The judges who preside over the cases are elected officials serving terms of six years each. No term limits exist for municipal judges, allowing them to keep their positions as long as they remain in the favor of the city or county voters.
They also are assisted in their daily functions by courthouse clerks, who are sometimes called the courthouse historians. Clerks perform vital functions like keeping minutes and records of the court’s daily operations. They help maintain the order and integrity of the court and are responsible for forwarding records to higher courts upon request.
Finally, municipal courts in the U.S. are routinely staffed by personnel like secretaries, receptionists, and security guards or police officers. All of these staff members work alongside judges and clerks and help guide and protect visitors who have business with the court. They along with the judges and clerks work regular weekday hours and rarely are in the courthouse during the weekends.