At the bottom of the Alabama state court system are "courts of limited jurisdiction" such as municipal and probate courts, and at the top is the state Supreme Court. It is considered a "unified" court system as it was reformed to allow centralized administration and streamlined processes as well as required annual training for judges.
Alabama Lower Courts
Probate courts handle family issues from name changes and guardianships to wills and estates. Property-related issues are also handled here, from deed restrictions to resolving liens. Alabama probate courts are generally found at the 67 county courthouses throughout the state. They do not conduct jury trials. Along with juvenile cases (considered confidential), county courts in Alabama house small claims courts, which handle matters under $3,000.
There are 273 municipal courts throughout the state of Alabama to handle local ordinances such as parking tickets, permit violations, and misdemeanor charges that may include driving under the influence. Municipal court judges used to be appointed by the local police department but court reform efforts turned that responsibility over to the city council, which now appoints the local judge. Judges supervise magistrates who work under them. Cities such as Auburn, AL (population 58,000) may offer deferral programs for shoplifting and domestic violence to offenders who come before the court. In 2010, Auburn's municipal court handled about 450 DUI cases and 19,000 other traffic offenses, with an additional 2,000 non-traffic cases.
In 2014, Alabama's municipal courts handled almost 533,000 cases, of which almost 417,000 were traffic-related and almost 8,000 were DUI charges.
Alabama District CourtsDistrict courts are where civil matters between $3,000 and $10,000 are heard, where criminal misdemeanors are tried and district courts are the first step for hearings on felony charges. There are 98 judges presiding over 67 district courts in the state of Alabama, one in each county.
Alabama Circuit Courts
Circuit court judges exercise supervision over the limited jurisdiction courts, including municipal, juvenile, probate, and small claims courts under them. There are 41 circuit courts in Alabama which handle criminal felony charges, disputes exceeding $10,000, and may hear appeals from those courts of limited jurisdiction under them.
In the years 2010-2014 state circuit courts handled about 50,000 cases per year, with about 40,000 of them felony-level charges and about 19,000 concerning juveniles. About 20,000 cases concerned child support in this state with 18 percent of the population in poverty.Alabama Appeals Courts
State appeals courts are divided into the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Court of Civil Appeals, each with five judges elected by political party. These courts hear appeals of decisions made in state courts to determine if errors were made in the application of laws. The Court of Civil Appeals hears issues including family matters of adoption and custody that have been decided in lower courts.
Alabama State Supreme Court
The Alabama state Supreme Court consists of nine elected judges (currently all Republican) and is the court of last resort in the state. It has jurisdiction over matters exceeding $50,000 as well as supervision of the state Public Service Commission, which oversees public utilities. The Supreme Court also makes rules and regulations to ensure the efficient and timely running of state courts.
The state Supreme Court's cases may be received by petition from lower courts (those cases already decided and appealed in state courts). Supreme Court justices also offer ongoing guidance on matters of law to lower courts as well as to federal courts seeking clarification of Alabama laws. About 1,500 cases are processed by the Alabama Supreme Court each year.
Alabama Notable Court Cases
In 2013 the state Criminal Court of Appeals overturned a 2009 murder conviction and death penalty sentence of a drug addict who was found guilty of throwing four small children off a bridge to their deaths. The judges decided that the criminal court had erred in not allowing lawyers to question jurors about their knowledge of the court, that the defendant could not get a fair trial in Mobile due to media saturation about the case, and that the jury should not have seen a video simulation of a police officer dropping sandbags off the same bridge to dramatize the event. Yet in 2014 the state Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision, saying the death sentence was appropriate and merited, that the lower court had not erred and that jurors were able to decide for themselves despite the presence of media coverage.