A three tiered system, the Alabama judiciary comprises of the Supreme Court, appellate courts and district tribunals. While there is only one Supreme Court that hears both criminal and civil cases, tribunals on the lower levels of the judicial system including appellate courts are bifurcated into civil and criminal chapters. The tribunals are segregated based on their authority, so while the Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction, the other tribunals only have limited, general or appellate jurisdiction.
The Supreme Court
The highest judicial entity in the state of Alabama, the Supreme Court has nine justices of which 5 sit en banc. This means that at any time, 5 justices hear cases that are presented before the court and majority vote is needed to reach a verdict on the matter. The Supreme Court of Alabama handles all civil appeals that exceed the claim amount of $50,000 and also appeals from the lower tribunals. Apart from this, the justices of this exclusive and original jurisdiction tribunal also deliberate on litigations that are initiated to prevent or compel a state official from performing his duties.
The Court of Appeals
On the next level of the judicial system, the appellate courts entertain appeals from circuit tribunals. Both the civil and criminal chapters of the appellate court have five justices, each of which 3 sit en banc with a senior justice serving as the presiding judge. The appellate court has mandatory jurisdiction in civil cases that do not exceed the claim value of $50,000 and all matters pertaining to felonies and misdemeanors.
The appellate tribunals also receive some cases from the Alabama Supreme Court which may channel these matters to the lower tribunal as they suit the latter’s jurisdiction. Most of the cases heard by the civil and criminal courts of appeals are cases challenging the verdict handed out by a circuit tribunal.
The circuit courts
The state of Alabama is divided into 41 judicial circuits each with a tribunal of its own. A total of 143 judges serve in these courts and each circuit comprises of one or more contiguous counties.Also known as trial courts, these tribunals handle all matters pertaining to juvenile justice, domestic issues, felonies exceeding $100,000, DUI/DWIs, property rights, misdemeanors and breach of contracts. The circuit courts work in concurrence with the district courts when deciding on civil matters that have a claim value of $3000 to $10,000. This means that some of the cases from district courts may be passed on to the circuit courts, particularly those with higher monetary value.
The probate courts
These are limited jurisdiction tribunals that hold zero jury trials. These tribunals can only rule on matters pertaining to wills, guardianship of minors, adoption, estate ownership and inheritance, mental health, name changes etc. The court is also responsible for the maintenance of public records such as birth, death, marriage and divorce.
The municipal courts
These tribunals lie below the circuit courts in the judicial hierarchy; the state has 273 municipal courts with over 279 judges presiding on matters in these courtrooms. The jurisdiction of these tribunals is limited to DWI/DUI cases, traffic violations and other municipal ordinance infractions. In other words, the municipal courts only handle small misdemeanor cases.
The district courts
The state of Alabama has 67 district courts and 103 judges preside over limited jurisdiction cases that are presented before these tribunals. The district courts only ever handle matters pertaining to small claims and misdemeanor charges. The District court shares the load of civil matters with the circuit court particularly in litigations where the claim value range is $3000 to $10,000
While the appellate court hears all appeals against judgments given by the lower tribunals and litigants and defendants do have the right to approach the Supreme Court if not satisfied with the way in which the matter was handled by the court of appeals, it is imperative to understand that the higher judicial entity can only be approached to appeal against the non application or faulty application of a law. In other words, the case will not be argued again in front of the higher tribunal.
If the court of appeals or Supreme Court finds that there has indeed been some compromise on the law when deciding in a matter, these tribunals have the authority to overturn the verdict or send the case for retrial.