Idaho state courts are considered a "'unified" system as they are administered by the Supreme Court.
At the local level, residents are likely to encounter magistrate courts in their day-to-day lives. A subsection of trial courts, magistrate courts have jurisdiction over misdemeanors, traffic issues, and civil cases under $10,000. Magistrates act as judges in that they may conduct preliminary hearings and approve warrants. Magistrates may also hear self-represented small claims cases informally. There are 87 magistrate positions within the courts; they are initially appointed for an 18 month probationary period then must run for re-election for four-year terms.
Small claims hearings are non-jury trials. This court's jurisdiction includes real property claims under $10,000, small claims civil complaints only with a $4,000 limit on value or damages, juvenile cases, domestic relations (such as divorce and child custody), and traffic issues. Magistrates preside over these proceedings.
Idaho also has five independent tribal courts that handle cases on specific, geographically-defined properties controlled by Native American tribes. Tribal courts have criminal, civil, and family court jurisdictions.
The state is divided into seven judicial districts, each comprised of several counties. A total of 41 judges preside over cases at this level, which include felony charges, personal injury cases, property disputes and contracts. District court judges also hear appeals of decisions made in magistrate courts. Judges are elected to four-year terms.
District courts each have "'local rules" that spell out procedures, deadlines, office hours, and judicial assignments (for instance, the judge who handles juvenile or family cases). Most of the districts have subdivisions to handle drug and mental health issues outside the mainstream court system. Called "'problem solving courts" they now number 68, have served over 2,500 individuals and include a veteran's court.
Recent records show a decline in the total number of civil cases before district courts. In 2011 there were about 9,500 civil cases at this level, but in 2015 that had decreased over 35 percent to around 5,900 civil cases. Criminal cases increased by about 20 percent in the same time period, from about 7,100 to 8,500 cases annually. These courts saw about 72,000 misdemeanors filed in 2015, as well as about 12,800 domestic relation or divorce cases.
In Idaho, the state Supreme Court assigns cases to the court of appeals. The four elected judges hear oral arguments from both sides in cases that have been tried in district court and review the case record before deciding if the law was applied correctly. Juries are not used in appellate courts; groups of three judges (panel) render a judgement.
Five judges sit on the Idaho State Supreme Court bench. They are elected to six-year terms by voters. The Supreme Court reviews some decisions by the state appellate court, but also has exclusive jurisdiction over automatic appeals of death penalty cases as well as cases involving certain public utilities and unemployment issues. Aside from courtroom duties, the judges oversee the operation of the state's courts, the state bar, answer questions regarding the constitutionality of state laws, and more.
In 2014 the Supreme Court received 163 case filings and disposed of 126. The year before, it received 145 case filings and disposed of 120.
The state Supreme Court upheld a lower court's 2014 award of $3.7 million in a wrongful death suit brought by the husband of a woman who died a few days after a medical procedure. The woman had undergone a liposuction and fat redistribution procedure at a spa/clinic in the city of Eagle and days later, her husband alleged, died due to bacteria introduced into her body by medical instruments that weren't properly sterilized. A jury awarded the husband $3.7 million and the Supreme Court agreed, saying no errors had been made in the lower court's application of laws.
The decision of a district court judge to sentence a man to 18 months in prison for sexually assaulting his girlfriend's mentally disabled teenaged daughter was upheld by an appeals court panel. The man had reached a plea deal with the lower court to have rape charges dismissed but refused to take a psycho-sexual mental health examination prior to sentencing, so the judge sentenced him accordingly. The man said the judge violated his Fifth Amendment rights by making assumptions about his mental state because he refused the test but the appeals court sided with the district court and upheld the sentence. The man was also ordered to pay $5,000 in court costs, $5,000 in restitution to the girl and her mother and to be on the sex offenders' registry for the rest of his life.