“Justice is truth in action.”
The concept of Michigan's “One Court of Justice” was introduced in Article 6, Section 1, of the 1963 Michigan Constitution. This concept allows for the judicial system to function as one unit consisting of different courts, each performing a distinct role.
After Michigan became a state in 1837, the citizens adopted a state constitution, which included the judicial branch of government.
The Michigan court system is like a pyramid. Cases begin in a local court, which is labeled Step 1 in the diagram. Local courts have different names, depending on their responsibilities. Most cases end with a solution at the local court. Very few cases move up the ladder to the Court of Appeals, and even fewer go all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court.
Michigan Supreme Court
The Michigan Supreme Court is the highest court in the state. It has seven Justices, one of whom is elected by the others to be Chief Justice. When a person involved in a lawsuit is dissatisfied with a decision from the Michigan Court of Appeals, the person can ask the Supreme Court to hear an appeal. The person files a written “application for leave to appeal.” The Supreme Court receives more than 2,000 applications each year and “grants leave” in less than 100 cases. When an application is “granted,” the Court receives more papers from the lawyers, and also allows them to argue in person, directly to the Justices. Later, the Court issues a written explanation of its decision. The explanation is called an “opinion.” If not all the Justices agree on how to decide a case, there can be several written opinions. The one with four or more signatures (a majority of the seven Justices) becomes the decision of the Court.
Michigan Court of Appeals
The Court of Appeals is a relatively new court that began in 1965. It is an “intermediate” court between the Circuit Court (where trials take place) and the Supreme Court. Persons dissatisfied by a Circuit Court decision go first to the Court of Appeals. In most cases, the person who loses in Circuit Court has the right to appeal to the Court of Appeals, where the case will be argued to three judges. If the judges are not in agreement, then the majority (two out of three judges) gets to decide the outcome of the appeal. The Court of Appeals is a busy court that hears about 7,000 cases each year, and listens to arguments in Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids, and Marquette.
The Circuit Court is a general trial court. It has jurisdiction in all civil cases involving more than $25,000; all felony cases; all serious misdemeanor criminal cases; and all family cases. The Family Division has jurisdiction over divorce, child custody, child support, paternity, adoptions, name changes, juvenile proceedings, emancipation of minors, parental consent, and personal protection proceedings. The Family Division also houses the Friend of the Court, which handles cases involving child custody, parenting time, and support. About 225,298 cases were filed in the Family Division in 2006. Circuit Courts also hear cases appealed from lower courts. Judges are elected on non-partisan ballots for six-year terms. Divided by counties, Michigan has 57 Circuit Courts. In 2006, almost 341,090 cases were filed state-wide in Circuit Court.
The District Court handles most traffic violation cases and hears both criminal and civil cases, including small claims and landlord-tenant disputes. All criminal cases for people 17 years old or older originate in district court. The defendant is told the charges, rights, and possible consequences. If the charge is a misdemeanor punishable by less than one year in jail, the district court conducts the trial. For charges punishable by more than one year, the case goes to Circuit Court. Over 3.6 million cases were filed in District Courts in 2006, and over 36,000 in Municipal Courts where no District Court is available.
The Court of Claims is in Ingham County, and is part of the 30th Circuit Court. The court hears only claims exceeding $1,000 against the state of Michigan or one of its departments. Claims are heard by a judge, not a jury. In 2006, 186 cases were filed state-wide in the Court of Claims.
A division of the District Court, the Small Claims Court hears civil cases of $3,000 or less. A case may be presented to a judge or an attorney magistrate. In 2006, 89,167 claims were filed here. A magistrate is a civil officer with the power to administer and enforce law.
The Probate Court handles wills, administers estates and trusts, orders treatment for developmentally disabled persons, and appoints guardians and conservators. In 2006, probate court handled 62,141 case filings.