A Guide to NC Courts
One of the most misunderstood aspects of the practice of law in this area is the distinction between courts. Locally, we have three (3) distinct courts; Magistrate/Small Claims Court, District Court & Superior Court. In addition, there are State Appeals Courts, including the State Supreme Court and Federal Courts, including the Supreme Court. For our purposes, we will focus on the three local courts, because that’s where 99% of cases are.
Small Claim’s Court: This is commonly known as Magistrate’s court. There are 3 major aspects of Small Claims Court you may want to be familiar with: (1) The cases brought to Small Claims court are exclusively civil, meaning that it’s a law suit between two entities. (2) This court only has jurisdiction to hear certain types of cases. This is limited to 3 types of cases: evictions, return of property & money owed. However, the value of the case is limited to $10,000. (3) The case is presided over by a Magistrate, a Judge who is not necessarily a lawyer but has most of the power of a traditional Judge.
District Court: This is the middle tier of the local court system and also the most common and diverse court. Cases whose jurisdiction fall under the umbrella of the District Court can range from speeding tickets to child custody cases. As you may have guessed, that means it’s both civil and criminal. 99% of criminal cases initiate in District Court but only (with a few minor exceptions) misdemeanors and infractions can be disposed of here. So if you have a seat-belt ticket or a driving while impaired charge, you will find yourself in District Court. On the civil side, District Court Judges preside over a wide range of cases; everything from child support to auto accidents. Most civil cases are domestic in nature i.e. child custody, divorce, alimony, child support, restraining orders etc…. These are presided over by a District Court Judge. In this district (the mighty 13th) we have 6 Judges representing 3 counties; 1 from Bladen (Ussery), 2 from Columbus (A. Gore & F. Gore) and 3 from Brunswick (Disbrow, Hankins & Fairley). They are assigned to handle certain cases on certain days by the Chief District Court Judge, Scott L. Ussery. Only in rare circumstances do you have Jury trials in District Court, so most trials are bench trials with the Judge being the finder of fact.
Superior Court: Like District Court, Superior Court is both civil and criminal. As you may have surmised by the name (Superior) the cases in this court are more serious in nature. The civil cases involve higher amounts of damages ($$$$$$$$) and the criminal cases are typically more serious. In this court you most commonly have Jury trials, although in certain circumstances the parties may be able to elect a bench trial. The unique feature of our bifurcated court system is the right to appeal. You may recall from 7th grade civics that the Constitution guarantees you a right to a trial by a jury of your peers. Well, since jury trials do not occur in District Court, should you be tried and convicted of a crime in District Court, you have the automatic right to appeal the matter to Superior Court. As a result, you may have anything from a communicating threats charge to murder charge tried in Superior Court. Of note is that until recently, you could appeal infractions to Superior Court. That right was eliminated in 2013.