“See you in court!” – But Which One?

by Chuck Brackney

The press often covers stories that involve the executive branch agencies and what they do, and, during the legislative session, the legislative branch is often in the news. Seldom, however, do we hear much about the judicial branch. We get reports of controversial or high-profile Supreme Court decisions, and we watch the progress of sensational trials, but there’s much more to the judicial branch than messy divorces, gory murder trials, and appeals to the Supreme Court.

The Colorado Judicial Branch consists of a number of different courts, some with broad jurisdiction and some that focus on specific areas of law. There are local trial courts as well as appellate courts that hear cases from around the state. Most courts are administered by the state government, except for municipal courts that are operated locally.

Municipal courts in Colorado hear cases involving local ordinances, traffic infractions, photo radar traffic tickets, and possession of alcohol by minors. All large and medium-sized cities in the state operate municipal courts, as well as many smaller localities such as Silt, Fountain, and Parachute.

State courts are divided into 22 judicial districts. Some districts contain multiple counties while others consist of a single county. The judicial districts are responsible for operating county courts and district courts. Click here to see a map of Colorado’s judicial districts:

Map of Colorado’s Judicial Districts

County courts hear civil cases involving less than $15,000, misdemeanors, traffic infractions, and protection orders, among others. With the exception of Denver County Court, all county courts are operated by the state. Denver County Court is operated by the City and County of Denver and is, in effect, a combined municipal and county court. Cases originating in county court may be appealed to district court. There are 114 county court judges statewide.

Small claims courts are divisions of county courts. Cases involving claims of up to $7,500 may be brought in small claims court. Cases are appealed to the district court.

District courts are the courts of general jurisdiction in Colorado. They hear civil cases involving any dollar amount, criminal matters, domestic relations cases, and probate matters. These courts also hear cases involving minors, such as adoption, dependency and neglect, and juvenile delinquency. Cases heard in district court are generally appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals. There are 175 district court judges.

Colorado also has a number of specialized courts. There are seven water courts, whose jurisdiction is based on the drainage patterns of the state’s rivers. Water court judges are district court judges appointed by the Supreme Court. Denver has its own separate specialized courts: Denver Probate Court and Denver Juvenile Court. Other courts around the state have set up separate informal internal divisions, such as drug courts and veterans courts to focus on cases involving these matters.

Colorado has two appellate courts. The lower appellate court is the Court of Appeals, which has 22 judges. The Court of Appeals hears most appeals directly from the district courts, as well as Denver Probate Court and Denver Juvenile Court. State law also gives the Court of Appeals jurisdiction over cases arising from decisions of a number of state administrative boards and agencies. Appeals of decisions from the Court of Appeals go to the Colorado Supreme Court.

The Colorado Supreme Court is the highest appellate court. The decisions of the seven-member court are binding on all other Colorado state courts. Requests to review decisions of the Colorado Court of Appeals constitute a majority of the Supreme Court’s filings. The Supreme Court receives over 900 petitions for certiorari each year from decisions of the Court of Appeals. About seven percent of these petitions are granted.

The Supreme Court also has direct appellate jurisdiction over cases in which a statute has been held to be unconstitutional, cases involving decisions of the Public Utilities Commission, writs of habeas corpus, cases involving adjudication of water rights, summary proceedings initiated under the Election Code, and prosecutorial appeals concerning search and seizure questions in pending criminal proceedings. All of these appeals are filed directly with the Supreme Court and, in these cases, bypass the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court also has exclusive jurisdiction to promulgate rules governing practice and procedure in civil and criminal actions.

Finally, the Colorado courts also administer adult and juvenile probation in the state. Probation is a sentencing option imposed instead of a sentence to the Colorado Department of Corrections for adults or commitment to the Division of Youth Corrections for juveniles and is different from parole, which is a conditional release from the secure custody provided by either of these state departments. Supervision requirements may be similar and there are rare occasions when someone is on parole and probation at the same time.