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​Michigan's Current Court System

One Court of Justice

“Justice is truth in action.”
—Benjamin Disraeli

The concept of Michigan's “One Court of Justice” was introduced in Article 6, Section 1, of the 1963 Michigan Constitution. This concept allows for the judicial system to function as one unit consisting of different courts, each performing a distinct role. 

After Michigan became a state in 1837, the citizens adopted a state constitution, which included the judicial branch of government.

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The Michigan court system is like a pyramid. Cases begin in a local court, which is labeled Step 1 in the diagram. Local courts have different names, depending on their responsibilities. Most cases end with a solution at the local court. Very few cases move up the ladder to the Court of Appeals, and even fewer go all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court.

 

Michigan Supreme Court

The Michigan Supreme Court is the highest court in the state. It has seven Justices, one of whom is elected by the others to be Chief Justice. When a person involved in a lawsuit is dissatisfied with a decision from the Michigan Court of Appeals, the person can ask the Supreme Court to hear an appeal. The person files a written “application​ for leave to appeal.” The Supreme Court receives about 2,000 applications each year and “grants leave” in about 100 cases. When an application is “granted,” the Court receives more papers from the lawyers, and also allows them to argue in person, directly to the Justices. Later, the Court issues a written explanation of its decision. The explanation is called an “opinion.” If not all the Justices agree on how to decide a case, there can be several written opinions. The one with four or more signatures (a majority of the seven Justices) becomes the decision of the Court.


 

Michigan Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals is a relatively new court that began in 1965. It is an “intermediate” court between the Circuit Court (where trials take place) and the Supreme Court. Persons dissatisfied by a Circuit Court decision go first to the Court of Appeals. In most cases, the person who loses in Circuit Court has the right to appeal to the Court of Appeals, where the case will be argued to three judges. If the judges are not in agreement, then the majority (two out of three judges) gets to decide the outcome of the appeal. The Court of Appeals hears about 6,000 cases each year, and listens to arguments regularly in Detroit, Lansing, and Grand Rapids. Several times a year cases are also heard in northern Michigan.


 

Local Courts

  • Circuit Court

The Circuit Court is a general trial court. It has jurisdiction in all civil cases involving more than $25,000; all felony cases; all serious misdemeanor criminal cases; and all family cases. The Family Division has jurisdiction over divorce, child custody, child support, paternity, adoptions, name changes, juvenile proceedings, emancipation of minors, parental consent, and personal protection proceedings. The Family Division also houses the Friend of the Court, which handles cases involving child custody, parenting time, and support. More than 158,000 cases were filed in the Family Division in 2016. Circuit Courts also hear cases appealed from lower courts. Judges are elected on non-partisan ballots for six-year terms. Divided by counties, Michigan has 57 Circuit Courts. In 2016, almost 253,000 cases were filed state-wide in Circuit Court.

  • Probate Court

The Probate Court handles wills, administers estates and trusts, orders treatment for developmentally disabled persons, and appoints guardians and conservators. In 2016, Probate Court handled more than 63,000 case filings.  
  • District/Municipal Court

The District Court handles most traffic violation cases and hears both criminal and civil cases, including small claims and landlord-tenant disputes. All criminal cases for people 17 years old or older originate in district court. The defendant is told the charges, rights, and possible consequences. If the charge is a misdemeanor punishable by less than one year in jail, the District Court conducts the trial. For charges punishable by more than one year, the case goes to Circuit Court. In 2016, over 2.73 million cases were filed in District Courts and Municipal Courts where no District Court is available.

  • Small Claims Court

A division of the District Court, the Small Claims Court hears civil cases of $6,000 or less. A case may be presented to a judge or an attorney magistrate. In 2016, 57,770 claims were filed here. A magistrate is a civil officer with the power to administer and enforce law.

  • Court of Claims

The Court of Claims is part of the Court of Appeals. The court hears and determines all civil actions filed against the State of Michigan and its agencies. These cases include highway defect, medical malpractice against state-owned medical facilities and state-employed medical practitioners, contracts, constitutional claims, prisoner litigation, tax-related suits, and other claims for money damages. The Court of Claims operates much like Circuit Court. Each Court of Claims case is heard by a single judge; however, there is no right to a jury trial. In 2016, 313 cases were filed statewide in the Court of Claims.