Arizona state courts are a combination of tribal, municipal, and superior courts.
Arizona Limited Jurisdiction
At the lowest level are municipal courts administered by justices of the peace, also called justice courts. Justices of the peace have similar duties to magistrates in that they have the authority to preside over certain legal proceedings, particularly in unincorporated areas of counties. Arizona's justice courts have limited jurisdiction to deal with misdemeanors such as traffic violations, landlord-tenant disputes, local bylaw issues, civil lawsuits involving less than $10,000, small claims lawsuits under $2,500, and also civil marriages. Each of the state's 15 counties has a justice court. In fiscal year 2015, justice courts handled 128,000 criminal, 194,000 civil, and nearly 396,000 traffic issues. Non-jury trials are common at this level, with over 7,000 conducted in fiscal year 2015, versus fewer than 350 jury trials.
Municipal courts in Arizona are found in cities and large towns and are also known as magistrate courts. They are run by individuals who may have little legal training or formal legal background but are appointed by local government officials. Similar to justice courts, they have limited jurisdiction over misdemeanor offenses such as violations of city ordinances, traffic tickets, and can issue protection orders and arrest warrants. There are 128 municipal courts among the state's 15 counties.
For civil cases involving less than $25,000, Arizona law requires the parties to arbitrate, or attempt to reach a compromise settlement outside of court. Arbitration is administered by panels of lawyers appointed by judges. Decisions of arbitrators may be appealed to state superior court.
The vast majority of municipal court cases in fiscal year 2015 involved traffic issues, with nearly 794,000 before the courts versus 210,000 criminal issues. About 500 cases were heard in jury trials, and 2,600 through non-jury trials.
Arizona Superior Court
State Superior Courts are the trial courts of Arizona; each has at least one judge, and are found in each of the 15 counties. Superior Court has jurisdiction over appeals originating in justice and municipal courts, as well as property and probate issues, criminal felonies, evictions, harassment situations, naturalization of citizens, evictions, divorces, and other legal issues not assigned to courts of limited jurisdiction. Within the Superior Court are special divisions for dealing with juvenile justice issues and tax disputes.
Despite a drop in total case filings across all courts, superior court saw almost 52,000 criminal and 119,000 civil cases in fiscal year 2015. About 1,300 jury trials and 4,000 non-jury trials conducted during that recording period. Almost 13,000 petitions for orders of protection (e.g. domestic abuse/restraining orders) were filed, with most approved, in fiscal year 2015.
Arizona Appellate Court
The Arizona Court of Appeals decides cases using panels of three judges. There are two regions for courts of appeals, one based in Phoenix and one in Tucson, with 16 judges and 6 judges, respectively. This court reviews decisions on specific matters decided in Superior Court, including juvenile, taxes, domestic relations, and workers compensation. It also hears civil and criminal appeals from Superior Court except for death penalty cases which are appealed directly to state Supreme Court. In fiscal year 2015, the appeals court heard about 1,200 criminal and 1,000 civil cases.
Arizona State Supreme Court
Disputes involving elected state officials or between counties and all death penalty sentence appeals go to the Arizona Supreme Court for review or decisions, as do selected cases from the state Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court's five justice component will soon be increased to seven after a bill passed by the state legislature in 2016. Its administrative duties include oversight of the state bar, judicial and legal misbehavior, and procedural matters in other courts. Despite having over 900 requests before it, in fiscal year 2015 state records show the Supreme Court disposing of just 8 criminal and 4 civil cases.
Arizona Notable Court Decisions
In the realm of marijuana legalization, court decisions are somewhat temporary: although residents had voted to approve the legalization of medical marijuana, the state Supreme Court decided in the spring of 2016 that police may initiate searches for illegal substances based on a smell. The decision overturned an appellate court ruling that disallowed the basis for searching as it could emanate from a legal source. The case stemmed from police searching for the source of a cannabis smell based on olfactory evidence at a storage unit. The Supreme Court acknowledged that this ruling could be different after November when legalization of medical marijuana is enacted.
A disputed open-pit copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson wound its way through the courts in recent years: environmentalists who oppose the mine first won, then lost. Alleging that the state Department of Environmental Quality used inaccurate calculations in permitting the operation, a grassroots environmental group opposed the mine on air quality issues. A superior court judge sided with the environmentalists, but later an appeals court panel reversed that decision and set the stage for the mile-wide, 3,000-foot-deep mine to move forward. The case could still be appealed to the state Supreme Court.