At the lowest level of Arkansas' state court system are state and local district courts that are limited by geographical jurisdiction.
Local district courts have geographical jurisdiction, part-time judges and limited scope. There are 77 such courts across the state with 90 judges that handle small claims and minor civil issues under $5,000 as well as minor criminal matters.
State district courts have jurisdiction over minor criminal matters, small claims, and civil cases that involve less than $25,000. There are 16 such courts across the state with 25 judges who serve four-year terms.
Arkansas Circuit Courts
Above state district courts are 28 circuit court districts that have jurisdiction over juvenile issues, civil and criminal cases, domestic relations (divorce), and the matters that are often handled by probate courts, including estates, guardianships, and adoptions. These are often handled by specialized divisions within the circuit. Over 120 elected judges preside over these courts for six year terms.
Arkansas Court Statistics
According to the most recent data available the busiest circuits in Arkansas are the Fourth, which covers Madison and Washington counties, and the Sixth, which covers Pulaski and Perry counties. The Fourth had over 14,000 cases in a year, with about 3,900 civil and 5,000 criminal. The Sixth had about 28,000 total cases, with 13,000 criminal and over 6,700 domestic relations. In total, the lower courts disposed of about 190,600 cases in a recent year.
Arkansas Appellate Court
Arkansas court of appeals has 12 judges (1 chief justice and 11 associates) from geographical districts who are elected state-wide and sit for eight year terms. The court was created in 1979 and enlarged over time to handle a growing caseload. In 2014 the court started its session with over 2,300 cases pending and another 1,700 cases were added to that, the majority being appeals of circuit court civil decisions (over 1,000). The appeals court disposes of about 1,500 cases per year.
Arkansas Supreme Court
The state Supreme Court in Arkansas is comprised of seven judges elected to staggered eight-year terms. In 2013 a survey of financial disclosures made by state Supreme Court judges gave Arkansas the grade of "'F" for lax or nondisclosure of judges' financial interests in cases and/or gifts to judges. In 2014 the court began its session with about 5,000 cases pending and saw another 430 cases filed, the majority being reviews of civil or criminal sentences. The court disposes of about 350 cases a year, ending with nearly the same number pending.
Arkansas Notable Court Cases
The Supreme Court recently decided that a man convicted in a capital murder case was entitled not to a new trial but to a hearing in a lower court to determine if his attorney presented the best defense possible. Because the defense attorney did not raise the possibility that the defendant had mental health or alcohol abuse problems when he committed the 2007 murder, the case was appealed to the state supreme court. In a 6-1 decision, Supreme Court justices agreed to send part of the case back just for that small ruling: whether the defense attorney had good reason to exclude information about his client's mental health.
In June 2016, Arkansas death row inmates lost the most recent court case that would delay their executions. The state Supreme Court decided that Arkansas is not in violation of a law requiring it to disclose financial expenditures that pertain to purchases of a lethal cocktail of drugs used to execute prisoners. The case was one of several that had extended delays in executions since 2005, when the state last put a prisoner to death.