How Does the Missouri Circuit Court Work?
The Missouri circuit court is the state’s trial court with original jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases. However, most cases begin in the circuit court. There are 46 official judicial circuits located in each county in Missouri. The government subdivides circuit courts into the associate circuit, small claims circuit, municipal circuit, family circuit, probate circuit, criminal circuit, and juvenile circuit.
Juvenile court and family court are departments of the circuit court that hear matters specific to the family. These matters include juvenile issues, such as delinquency, status, child abuse, child neglect, discontinuation of parental rights, divorce or annulment of marriages, child custody, child visitations, and adoption. The circuit court also presides over cases regarding traffic tickets and misdemeanor cases.
The appellate court serves as an intermediary and has authority over appeals from the circuit court. That is, parties that are not content with the circuit court’s judgment can take it to the court of appeals for review. Also, litigation appeals may be transferred from the appellate court to the supreme court as the supreme court is the highest in the state and possesses general jurisdiction.
The personnel in the Missouri judiciary consists of 415 judges and commissioners. The supreme court judges are seven in number, and the appellate court consists of thirty-two judges. There are 142 circuit judges, 202 associate court judges as well as 33 deputy commissioners and commissioners. Missouri uses a voting system to elect new circuit judges and associate circuit judges. However, the governor of the State of Missouri also can appoint judges until another election occurs. Whether elected or appointed, officeholders must be law practitioners in the state. Judges in the trial court are selected for a six-year term and will be required to retire at 70 years old. If a judge retires, resigns, or dies, due procedures are created and followed for a new appointee’s proper reinstatement.
The responsibility of the Missouri Circuit Court Clerk varies according to the level of the court. In the Missouri circuit court, the clerk maintains accurate and complete records of the court. The clerk also collects, disburses, and accounts for all payments by the court. Additionally, the circuit clerk has the responsibility to:
- Receive, maintain, and process the rules, judgments, orders, and other proceedings of the court;
- Assist the judges to foster efficiency and ease the operation of the court;
- Maintain the court case files in an orderly and accurate manner;
- Provide case reporting uniformly;
- Preserve properties of the court. For example, the court seal;
- Select jurors;
- Dish out processes like summons, subpoenas, executions, garnishments, sequestrations, judgments, orders, and commitment.
Some circuit courts in Missouri have an in-house administrator that performs the functions of a circuit clerk. In most counties, the circuit clerk is an elected official to serve for four years. If this office becomes vacant, the governor has the authority to appoint someone to stand in the gap until the next general election to ensure judicial continuity. Circuit clerks in Missouri must be 21 years of age, have been a resident of Missouri for one year, and a resident of the county for at least three months before appointment or election. Other essential court members include the circuit court administrator, the court security, legal staff, judges, support staff, court reporter, jury supervisor, and the juvenile officer. Each of these offices has different duties to carry out.
There are 46 judicial circuits courts in Missouri, and each circuit covers at least one of the 144 counties in the state. Parties can locate the necessary court through the find a court feature online. This search can be done either by county name, court name, or zip code. The trial process in the circuit court in Missouri involves:
- Selection of the Jury: Jurors are picked and are required to take an oath that all answers will be of the truth only. There are specific grounds to which a juror might be challenged and excused. Legal grounds include being related to the parties in the lawsuit either by marriage or by blood called peremptory challenges.
- The Trial: Cases often fall into two broad categories; the civil and the criminal case, mostly tried under different rules. However, more proof is required to charge a person guilty of a crime in a criminal case than is necessary in a civil case. It is only required to prove a civil case by preponderance evidence, unlike a criminal case where an attorney or party must prove a crime occurred beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Juror Conduct During the Trial: There are specific rules to be followed by the juror to ensure fairness to both sides, including discussing the case, avoiding TV/newspaper accounts, talking with both parties and lawyers, and promptness. Giving verdicts on a case requires that more than half of the jurors agree on the ruling. If the jury cannot reach an agreement, the jurors notify the court judge, and the case might be tried again by another jury.
- Sentencing: After hearing from the jury, the judge will decide on the corresponding punishment, which can be a jail term or probation.
- After the Verdict: This step is a review tool for the lawyers and the general public. Questions will arise about the verdict after the jury announces it and the judge approves, and lawyers will have room for final comments.
There’s no stipulated time as to which cases may last in the circuit court, but following due process, the case may last longer.
Under the Missouri public records and public meeting law, and requestors do not have to state reasons for the request before accessing court records. Locating a case record requires parties to log on to an online portal created by the state. Exemptions include cases under current investigations, welfare cases, software codes, sealed bids and documents, credit card numbers, access codes, social security numbers, records associated with a dismissed case, guidelines for responding to or preventing terrorism, or other occurrences that could endanger the public.
Also, records related to scientific and technological development, existing or proposed security systems, and the general public cannot access expunged records. If the documents requested involve large copies and contain tapes, films, disks, and graphs, interested parties may be required to pay a fee, and the court might request an advance payment.