Summary Review of Court Systems -
Structure of Civil Courts
Six types of courts exist in Montana: “the court of impeachment, which is the senate”, the supreme court, the district courts, the justices’ courts, municipal courts, and courts of incorporated cities or towns. Mont. Code Ann. § 3-1-101. Administrative courts and tribal courts also exist, but they are not recognized as “courts of record.”
The district courts have statewide jurisdiction and handle all major criminal, civil, and family law matters, as well as de novo appellate review of justices’ court, municipal court, and city or town court matters. The Montana Supreme Court conducts appellate review of orders and judgments of Montana’s district courts and directly rules on writs and ballot issues. All counties have a justice of the peace. Larger cities have municipal courts and smaller ones have city or town courts. Justices of the Peace and city or town judges need not be licensed attorneys.
District courts may establish “small claims court” for small dollar cases to provide speedy remedies using an informal and less costly process. Mont. Code Ann. §§ 3-12-101 and -102. Small claims court is not a physical court; it is a process implemented by district court judges, who select the judges and determine their salaries. Often, small claims court judges hold another judicial office. Mont. Code Ann. § 3-12-201.
The rules that apply to courts of limited jurisdiction–municipal courts, justices’ courts, and city or town courts–may differ significantly from those that apply to district courts, particularly regarding involvement of attorneys and attorney fees. The prevailing party may be awarded its attorney’s fees in an appeal from a court of limited jurisdiction. See, e.g., Mont. Code Ann. § 25-33-305. Under small claims court rules, judges or court personnel may help parties file their claims, a party may not be represented by an attorney unless all parties are represented by an attorney, and business entities may be represented by anyone having appropriate agency authority. Mont. Code Ann. §§ 3-12-202, 25-35-505(2), 25-35-505(3). A defendant who does not remove the matter to justice court waives the right to a trial by jury and representation by an attorney. Mont. Code Ann. § 25-35-605. Attorney’s fees may be awarded to a defendant who removes a matter to justice court but does not prevail. Mont. Code Ann. § 25-35-806. In justices’ court, a person who is not a licensed attorney may act as attorney. Mont. Code Ann. § 25-31-601.
Basis of Jurisdiction
The Montana Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction over all cases in law and in equity, original jurisdiction to issue writs and review ballot statements, and supervisory control over all state courts. Mont. Code Ann. §§ 3-2-201 to 3-2-203; Mont. Const. Art. VII, § 2.
The jurisdiction of district courts extends to the boundaries of the State of Montana. Mont. Code Ann. § 3-5-312(1). District courts have original jurisdiction in all civil matters in both law and equity (including probate and family law matters), all criminal cases amounting to a felony, specified misdemeanor cases, all cases that could result in a judgment against the state for the payment of money, and cases involving naturalization or certain writs. Mont. Code Ann. § 3-5-302. They also have appellate jurisdiction over cases in courts of limited jurisdiction. Mont. Code Ann. § 3-5-303.
Municipal courts have concurrent and coordinated jurisdiction with the justices’ courts of the county where the city is located, exclusive original jurisdiction of all civil and criminal violations of city ordinances, and concurrent jurisdiction with the district court in actions under the Residential Landlord Tenant Act. Mont. Code Ann. § 3-6-103.
Justices of the peace have jurisdiction only in their county over temporary orders of protection, most damage claims where the amount in controversy exclusive of costs and fees does not exceed $12,000, and misdemeanor crimes. They also have concurrent jurisdiction with district courts over claims brought under the Residential Landlord Tenant Act. Montana Code Ann. §§ 3-10-301, 3-10-304(1).
City or town courts have exclusive jurisdiction over civil and criminal violations of city ordinances and over amounts in controversy not in excess of $9,500, exclusive of costs and fees, but have no jurisdiction over foreclosure actions involving public property. Mont. Code Ann. § 3-11-103.
Small claims court jurisdiction extends over all actions for the recovery of money or specific personal property when the amount claimed does not exceed $7,000, exclusive of costs and the defendant can be served within the county where the action is commenced. Mont. Code Ann. § 25-35-502(1).
Montana has no commercial courts.
Mediation is required for most appeals heard by the Montana Supreme Court. Rule 7, M.R.App.P. Mediation may be statutorily required for particular claims and is generally required for all claims in all courts by local rule or court order.
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