Summary Review of Court Systems -
Structure of Civil Courts
Oregon’s judiciary consists primarily of four different courts: a unified system of state circuit courts (trial courts), appellate courts (Oregon Supreme Court and Oregon Court of Appeals), and the Tax Court. Cases enter the court system starting in the circuit courts and may go on to a higher court through the appeals process. Tax Court cases start in the Magistrate Division and can be appealed to the Regular Division’s Tax Court Judge, whose decisions can only be appealed directly to the Supreme Court.
All judges in the Oregon Judicial Department, including Supreme Court Justices, Court of Appeals judges, circuit court judges, and the Oregon Tax Court judge are elected to six-year terms in non-partisan elections. The governor may appoint a new judge if a position becomes vacant before the end of the term. The Oregon circuit courts currently have 177 judges. The Oregon Court of Appeals has 13 judges. The Oregon Tax Court has 1 judge, and the Magistrate Division has 3 magistrates. The Oregon Supreme Court has 7 justices.
Oregon circuit courts are courts of general jurisdiction, deciding criminal, civil, domestic relations, traffic, juvenile, small claims, violations, abuse prevention act, probate, mental commitments, adoption, and guardianship cases. Circuit courts are located in each of Oregon’s 36 counties and they are organized into 27 judicial districts.
The Oregon Court of Appeals decides civil and criminal appeals from the circuit courts, except death penalty cases, Tax Court appeals, and cases involving challenges to administrative agency actions and rules. Thirteen judges are divided into four panels that consider matters assigned to them by the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals. An additional two-judge panel can be formed to include the Chief Judge and one judge selected from any of the other panels for review of certain substantive motions filed in appeals or judicial review cases.
The Oregon Supreme Court is Oregon’s highest court and the court of last resort for the interpretation of Oregon law in the state court system. Its primary work is to perform discretionary review of petitions that challenge Court of Appeals decisions. Some cases of direct review or original jurisdiction go directly to the Supreme Court, including cases where the death penalty has been imposed, Oregon Tax Court appeals, attorney and judge discipline matters, certain election-related matters, and cases where Supreme Court review is mandated by statute because the case is of unusual legal significance or will have a statewide impact.
In addition to these courts, there are municipal courts that function as the city government’s judicial branch; county courts which exist in seven Eastern Oregon counties; justice courts which hear cases involving minor traffic and boating violations, fish and game offenses, small civil claims, violations of some county ordinances, and weddings; tribal courts; and federal courts.
Basis of Jurisdiction
Oregon Circuit Courts are courts of general jurisdiction. Except in six Eastern Oregon counties, these courts also have jurisdiction over probate issues, adoptions, guardianships and conservatorships, and juvenile items. See ORS Title 1, Chapter 3. As for the exceptions: the aforementioned County Courts in Gilliam, Sherman, and Wheeler Counties exercise jurisdiction in juvenile cases, except for cases involving the termination of parental rights; Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Malheur, Herman, and Wheeler County Courts have jurisdiction in probate, adoption, guardianship, and conservatorship cases. Morrow County Court has jurisdiction over traffic cases, game cases, landlord/ tenant cases, small claims, misdemeanor crimes, and other violations.
The Oregon Court of Appeals is the intermediate appellate court and generally has jurisdiction to hear all civil and criminal appeals from circuit courts and to review actions of most state administrative agencies. See ORS Title 1, Chapter 2.
The Oregon Supreme Court hears appeals from lower state courts, as well as other unique issues. Appeals from the court’s decisions can only go to the Supreme Court of the United States. See ORS Title 1, Chapter 2.
The Tax Court has a Magistrate and Regular divisions. They have exclusive jurisdiction regarding facts and legal questions arising from all tax laws within the state of Oregon. See ORS Title 8, Chapter 305.
Oregon does not have a specialized commercial court. However, Oregon does have a voluntary program for complex litigation, which can include business cases. Chief Justice Order No. 10-066 (2010).
The Oregon Complex Litigation Court (OCLC) is available for circuit court civil cases across the state that are complex due to a variety of factors including subject matter, number of parties, factual issues, legal issues, discovery issues, and length of trial. The OCLC offers parties targeted case management and trial by an experienced civil trial judge. It also offers circuit courts a management option for cases that may overwhelm a court’s docket and resources.
Participation in the OCLC is voluntary and all parties, the presiding judge of the judicial district with venue over the case, and the managing panel of the OCLC must agree. The managing panel is appointed by the Chief Justice and consists of three circuit court presiding judges. Once there is agreement, the panel assigns the case to an appropriate judge in the OCLC, depending on the special needs of the case.
Oregon courts encourage mediation of disputes in civil cases, but, generally, do not require that parties to a civil case mediate before trial. The exception to that general rule comes in small claim cases in some counties, when the amount in dispute is less than $7,500. Some, but not all, counties require a judicial settlement conference prior to trial, especially in cases in which the parties seek to set trial more than 12 months after filing of the case.
There is mandatory non-binding arbitration for civil cases where the only relief claimed is for the recovery of money or damages and the amount claimed is less than $50,000, exclusive of attorney fees, costs, and disbursements. See ORS 36.400 to 36.425. Mandatory arbitration also applies to domestic relations suits in which the only contested issue is the division or other disposition of property between the parties. The procedures for arbitration are set forth in the provisions of ORS 36.400 to 36.425, Chapter 13 of the Uniform Trial Court Rules, and Chapter 13 of the 22nd Judicial District’s Supplementary Local Rules.
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