There are three main levels of courts in Missouri's court system. Trial courts are the lowest level, and are also known as "'circuit courts." The Missouri Court of Appeals is the intermediate appellate court for the state, and this is split among three different regional districts. The Supreme Court of Missouri is the highest court of the state.
Missouri Trial Courts
Trial courts are local-level courts in each county in Missouri. These are the courts where cases are initially heard when first filed in the state justice system. County courts may also be referred to as "'circuit courts." There are also multiple different courts which hear specific cases within these circuits, such as family court, juvenile court, civil court, criminal court, municipal court and probate.
There are 45 circuit courts in Missouri, and special court dockets have been developed and reserved to specifically hear cases of drug charges, juvenile drug use and drunk driving charges in an effort to reduce recidivism rates of these types of crimes in the state.
Missouri Court of Appeals
The appellate court for Missouri hears all appeals from various lower level courts at the county level. There are three regional district courts of appeals in Missouri, which hear cases based upon the region they originate from. The three district courts are the Western District, Eastern District and Southern District Courts of Appeal.
Many of the cases the court of appeals hears render a final decision in the matter. Less than ten percent of them are ever passed on to the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court of Missouri
This court is the highest court in the state, and will hear any cases questioning the use of the state's constitution in sentencing and court findings. The Supreme Court has the final say when determining the constitutionality of a local law or court decision. Missouri's Supreme Court was founded in 1820, and has exclusive jurisdiction to hear cases concerning the following:
- Questions of a state law or constitutional provision
- State revenue statutes
- Death penalty cases
- Questions of a U.S. law or constitutional provision
- Challenges of an elected state official's right to be in office
If the case does not fall under one of these five types, the case must first be heard by the Missouri Court of Appeals before being handed to the Supreme Court of Missouri. This court provides approximately 100 written opinions annually.
Missouri Notable Court Cases
Perhaps the most notable case to originate from Missouri's court system was that of Dred Scott v. Irene Emerson, in which a legally owned slave sued his owner for freedom in a Missouri court in 1846. Scott claimed he should be freed because he resided in a slave-free state. Emerson, his owner at the time, argued that under federal law Scott should remain a slave because he was born to slaves. Scott eventually lost the case due to a technicality, though Missouri was known for its sympathetic rulings in cases of slaves seeking freedom.
Later in 1847, Scott was granted a new trial, but due to continuances, health epidemics and appeals it did not start until 1850. The court eventually ruled against Scott, stating that he was still legally a slave. This led to the federal Dred Scott v. Sanford case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision that has been called "'the court's worst decision ever," stating that Scott and his family could not be American citizens or sue in a federal court.