North Carolina's court system, called the General Court of Justice, is a unified statewide and state-operated system consisting of three divisions and a special court:
The Appellate Division of the General Court of Justice is composed of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals.
THE SUPREME COURTThe Supreme Court of North Carolina is the state's highest court, and there is no further appeal in the state from their decisions.The Supreme Court has no jury, and it makes no determinations of fact; rather, it considers errors in legal procedures or in judicial interpretation of the law and hears arguments on the written record from the trial below. Its decisions are printed and distributed in bound volumes known as "North Carolina Reports."The Supreme Court's case load has consisted primarily of cases involving questions of constitutional law, legal questions of major significance and appeals from convictions imposing death sentences in first-degree murder cases.The Utilities Commission's general ratemaking cases go directly from the commission to the Supreme Court.
COURT OF APPEALSThe Court of Appeals is the state's only intermediate appellate court. The court decides only questions of law on every case appealed from the Superior and District courts except death penalty cases. Appeals can range from a parking ticket case to murder case. Cases in which there is a dissent in the Court of Appeals go to the Supreme Court as well as to those that the Supreme Court accepts for review through petition.All cases except general rate-making cases from the Utilities Commission's go to the Court of Appeals.
The Superior Court Division Court consists of the superior court, which is the court with general trial jurisdiction. This court sits at least twice a year in each county of the state. In the busiest counties, several sessions may be held concurrently each week.
JURISDICTIONThe civil jurisdiction of the superior court is concurrent with that of the district court. Cases involving more than $10,000 in money and a few special categories of cases (injunctions, constitutional issues, eminent domain actions and corporate receiverships) are usually tried in superior court.As to criminal jurisdiction, the superior court has exclusive jurisdiction over all felonies (major crimes) and jurisdiction over misdemeanors (crimes for which the punishment cannot exceed two years' imprisonment) and infractions (minor non-criminal motor vehicle violations) appealed from a conviction in district court. Trials are by a jury of twelve.In criminal cases appealed from the district court, the defendant gets a trial de novo (a whole new trial).
The jurisdiction of the district court may be categorized into the following four categories:
- CivilThe civil jurisdiction is concurrent between the superior and district trial divisions of the General Court of Justice except for superior court's exclusive original jurisdiction over the probate of wills and the administration of decedents' estates.The District Court Division has jurisdiction over the cases involving amounts in controversy of $10,000 or less, and the Superior Court Division is proper for cases involving amounts in controversy over $10,000.
The criminal jurisdiction of the district court is less complicated. Because felony cases must be tried in the superior court, the district court has authority in those cases only to conduct preliminary hearings to determine whether there is probable cause to bind the defendant over to the grand jury for indictment to stand trial in superior court. In misdemeanor cases, the district court has exclusive original jurisdiction that, with respect to very minor offenses, it shares with the magistrate. Trial of a criminal case in district court is always without a jury.
The district court also has jurisdiction over juvenile matters. These cases concern children under the age of sixteen who are 'delinquent' and children under the age of eighteen who are 'undisciplined,' 'dependent,' 'neglected' or 'abused.' Proceedings involving children who may be found to belong in one of these statutory categories are initiated by petition (as distinguished from the arrest warrant used in adult cases), and the hearing conducted by the judge may be less formal than in adult cases. However, juveniles do have attorneys appointed to represent them at the hearing.
The magistrate's authority criminal matters is limited to
- accepting guilty pleas to minor misdemeanors and pleas of responsibility to infractions;
- accepting waivers of trial and guilty pleas to certain traffic, littering, wildlife, boating, marine fisheries, state park recreation and alcoholic beverage violations; and
- accepting waivers of trial and guilty pleas in worthless-check cases in which the check is for $2,000 or less. If specifically authorized by the chief district judge, the magistrate may also hear cases and enter judgment on a plea of not guilty to a worthless-check case in which the check is for $2,000 or less.
However, very few magistrates have been authorized to try worthless-check cases on a not-guilty plea. The magistrate also issues arrest and search warrants and sets bail.
For the minor littering, traffic, wildlife, boating, marine fisheries, state park recreation and alcoholic beverage offenses, the fine for each offense is fixed in advance by a uniform statewide schedule promulgated by the chief district judges so that the magistrate has neither trial nor sentencing discretion in these cases and so that the fine that a person charged with the offense will pay is uniform throughout the state.
In civil cases, the magistrate is authorized to try small claims involving up to $4,000 money value, including summary ejectment (landlord's action to oust a tenant) cases, assigned by the chief district judge. The parties are not usually represented by attorneys, and simplified trial procedures are followed. Trial is always without a jury. The magistrate's judgment has the same effect as that of a district judge and is placed in the records of the clerk of superior court. An appeal from magistrate's court to district court gives the appealing party an entirely new trial.
- INNOVATIVE COURTSThe innovative courts of North Carolina are family and drug treatment courts have been established to deal with certain problems where the traditional adversarial system is not always appropriate.In these courts the court system becomes a problem solver as well as a decider of facts. These types of courts are Family courts, Drug treatment court, Business courts.Family Courts which are district court sessions set up to deal with the multiple issues of a particular family such as divorce, child custody, adoptions and abuse.Drug Treatment Court is created to deal with the serious problem of the effect of substance abuse on repetitive criminal behavior. This court provides specialized treatment and case tracking services for certain defendants in order to reduce their substance abuse dependence and their recidivism.Business Court is a another type of innovative court that operates in the superior court. The court is created to make the court system as responsive and predictable as possible in dealing with complex corporate issues.The court deals with the complex business cases involving significant issues under Business Corporation Act; Professional Corporations; Limited Liability Companies; Partnerships; Securities Act; Tender Offer Disclosure Act; and Investment Advisors Act will be designated as complex business cases.