Summary Review of Court Systems -
Structure of Civil Courts
There are four (4) different levels of courts in Kentucky. The two trial court levels are the district court and the circuit court, the latter of which includes family court. The other two (2) levels – the Kentucky Court of Appeals and the Kentucky Supreme Court, hear cases that are appealed.
District Court handles misdemeanors, violations, traffic cases, juvenile cases, civil cases under $5,000, small claims court cases and probate matters, among other things. District Court judges are elected for four (4) year terms. District Court juries are made up of six (6) members. A unanimous decision is needed to render a verdict in criminal cases, while civil cases require a five-sixths majority. The County Attorney’s office prosecutes criminal, traffic and juvenile cases in District Court.
Circuit Court has jurisdiction over all felony cases, civil cases of more than $5,000, divorce and custody cases, appeals from District Court and contested probate cases. Judges on the Circuit Court serve eight (8) year terms. Circuit Court juries consist of twelve (12) members. Criminal trial verdicts must be unanimous, but civil trials only require a three-fourths majority. Felony criminal trials in the Circuit Court are prosecuted by the Commonwealth Attorney’s office. Kentucky has 57 circuits, which may have one or more judges, depending on the population and docket size. Circuits may include anywhere from 1-4 counties.
Family Court is considered part of the Circuit Court and only exists in certain counties in Kentucky. Family Court deals with some of the matters normally handled in the District Court and also some of the matters normally handled in the regular Circuit Court. Family Courts handle divorce, child custody, visitation, child support, adoption, termination of parental rights, domestic violence, paternity and juvenile matters such as dependency, abuse, neglect and status offenses such as truancy and runaways.
The Court of Appeals reviews cases that have already been tried in a lower court, such as District Court or Circuit Court. There are fourteen (14) judges on the Court of Appeals, and they are divided into panels of no more than three (3) judges. Two (2) appeals judges are elected from each appellate district for terms of eight (8) years.
The Supreme Court of Kentucky is the court of last resort and the final interpreter of state law. It consists of seven (7) justices who are elected from the seven (7) appellate districts and serve eight (8) year terms. The Supreme Court is composed of a chief justice and six (6) other justices that collectively review decisions of lower courts. Rulings that impose the death sentence, life imprisonment, or twenty (20) years or more imprisonment automatically go to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court also can discipline lawyers and has authority in determining the rules of practice and procedure for the entire court system.
Basis of Jurisdiction
Jurisdiction of Kentucky’s district and circuit courts is based on the amount in controversy. The Court of Appeals and Supreme Court hear matters that are appealed from the lower courts.
On January 1, 2020, the Jefferson Circuit Court launched Kentucky’s first Business Court Docket Pilot Project, a circuit court division specially designed for complex commercial disputes and business litigation. Two (2) Jefferson County Circuit Court judges were assigned to preside over the Business Court Docket. The goal of the program is geared toward unclogging the regular dockets and giving complex commercial disputes special focus and management. Disputes eligible for assignment to the Jefferson County Business Court Docket include disputes involving, among other things, breach of contract claims concerning business entities, transactions governed by the Uniform Commercial Code, commercial real estate, business tort claims, and business class actions not brought by consumers. Only cases with proper venue in Jefferson County are eligible for the Business Court Docket. Attorneys have the opportunity to move for or challenge assignment to the Business Court Docket, and judges have an opportunity to remove or refer cases to the Business Court Docket.
In Kentucky, “mediation” is defined as a non-adversarial process in which a neutral third party encourages and helps disputing parties reach a mutually acceptable agreement. Recommendations by mediators are not binding on the parties unless the parties enter into a settlement agreement incorporating the recommendations. KRS 446.010. Kentucky does not require a mediator to be an attorney, nor does a mediator in Kentucky need certain training or certification to mediate unless he or she desires to be included on the Administrative Office of the Court’s Roster of Mediators. Kentucky does, however, have a compilation of suggested minimum standards for training, experience, education and ethical conduct for mediators practicing in its courts, which are set forth by the Supreme Court of Kentucky in the Rules of Administrative Procedure. In some circumstances, court staff or volunteer mediators are available to mediate at no cost to the parties.
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