Hawaii's court system has four primary components: district court, circuit court, appeals court, and the state supreme court. Each of the state's four islands has basic court access, with the seat at the Supreme Court at Honolulu.
Hawaii Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
Family courts operate at both the circuit and district court levels, handling issues like divorce, child custody, and termination of parental rights. Family courts also handle juvenile cases, from delinquency to criminal offenses committed by minors. There were more than 29,000 family court cases filed in fiscal year 2013-2014.
Tax court handles appeals of taxes on property, excise, tobacco, liquor, income, and other items. It is part of state circuit court. It had over 240 cases filed in fiscal year 2013-2014, contributing to a total of more than 1,100 pending cases before the court.
Land court handles issues regarding property titles. It is part of the state circuit court. More than 240 cases were filed in land court in fiscal year 2013-2014, contributing to the total of 775 cases pending before the court.
Hawaii District Court
This is where most civil or criminal cases originate, but proceedings that require a jury trial are transferred to circuit court. District court jurisdiction includes traffic violations, misdemeanor criminal cases, preliminary hearings on felony charges, limited scope of civil issues under $40,000 in value, landlord-tenant disputes, small claims cases under $5,000, requests for temporary restraining orders, and appeals of administrative decisions on motor vehicle registration. The Supreme Court chief justice names district court judges from a list created by a nominating committee, then those individuals are affirmed by a vote of state legislators. Judges at this level serve for renewable six-year terms.
In fiscal year 2013-2014, there were more than 51,674 cases (not including traffic related issues) before the district courts.
Hawaii Circuit Courts
The main trial courts are the state circuit courts, and the four circuits are comprised by each of the state's four islands (except they are numbered 1-3 and 5 because the 3rd and 4th circuits merged in the 1940s). Circuit courts conduct jury trials and handle probate and guardianship issues as well as administrative agency appeals, real property cases, criminal felony charges and civil cases that concern more than $25,000. Family court is part of the circuit courts.
Circuit courts saw almost 13,500 cases filed in fiscal year 2013-2014, with about 33 percent comprised of criminal cases and 35 percent civil cases.
Hawaii Appellate Court
Created in 1979, the intermediate court of appeals originally received its cases from the state Supreme Court but in 2004 that changed, and all appeals from lower courts or state agencies became the jurisdiction of the court of appeals. Six judges occupy the bench; hearings are conducted by three-judge panels. The appeals court doesn't take original testimony from witnesses but examines the record of a case from lower court and may take oral arguments to determine if the law were applied correctly in that case.
Similar to the Supreme Court selection process, this court's six judges are identified by a nominating committee, appointed by the governor and approved by a vote of the state senate. They serve 10-year renewable terms.
During fiscal year 2013-2014, the courts received about 600 appeals cases and about 100 original cases for a total of over 700 cases. More than 3,300 supplemental proceedings were filed that year as well (which may include motions, special stipulations, etc.).
Hawaii Supreme Court
Four justices and one chief justice occupy the Hawaii Supreme Court bench for 10-year terms. The process of selection begins with being identified by a nominating committee, appointment by the governor and confirmed by the state senate.
The Supreme Court's primary purpose is to decide if state laws are constitutional. Jurisdiction of the court includes oversight of the state bar, some state agencies, and rulemaking for lower courts.
In 2013 the court's caseload topped 240 cases filed for the first time, an increase of over 50 cases from the previous year. In 2014 another 250 cases were filed, but the court has disposed of 194 or more cases in each of those years.
Hawaii Notable Court Cases
A farmer fined for spilling produce on a Hawaiian highway disputed the charges all the way to the state supreme court. When a police officer saw lettuce or cabbage leaves littering a highway near Hilo, he stopped the only truck nearby that was hauling similar freight and fined the driver for spilling part of his cargo on the road. In court the driver said he'd gone back to pick up any spilled vegetables but didn't find them, surmising the leaves had blown off the highway or were run over and would decompose naturally without need for removal. A district court judge sided with the police, saying that the truck driver hadn't tried hard enough to go back and pick up the spilled vegetables, so the driver's fine of $250 was upheld. However the Supreme Court reviewed the case and determined that there was an exemption from the spilled cargo law for agricultural products, and that the driver's determination that a few leaves of cabbage weren't worth running across a highway to retrieve constituted a reasonable attempt to recover the spilled goods. Therefore the supreme court overturned the district court's decision and the fine was reimbursed.
A $1.4 billion project to build a giant telescope atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii's tallest peak, has been delayed by environmentalists and others who say the project is a violation of a sacred place. The project has been controversial since construction started in early 2015, inspiring protests and threats to block construction. In December 2015 the state Supreme Court invalidated the building permit, saying that the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources approved the permit before hearing from those who opposed it. There are more than a dozen other observatories on the mountaintop.