North Carolina’s court system, called the General Court of Justice, is a unified statewide, state-operated system comprised of three divisions–the Appellate Division (made up of the court of appeals and the state supreme court), the Superior Court Division, and the District Court Division.
Before 1966 North Carolina operated under a hybrid court system with a state-funded supreme court (the appeals court) and superior court (general jurisdiction trial court) that were uniform statewide. Lower courts were operated and funded by cities and counties, and their jurisdiction varied.
In 1962 North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment creating North Carolina’s current court system, which began operating in 1966. Jurisdiction of the courts is now uniform throughout the state. The various city and county courts were replaced by a uniform district court system, which took over misdemeanors, minor civil cases, juvenile matters, and domestic relations from superior court. The justices of the peace and mayor’s courts were replaced by magistrates, who operate within the District Court Division. An intermediate appellate court—the court of appeals—was created in 1967 to relieve the state supreme court’s heavy case load.
Under this uniform judicial system, administration and budgeting were centralized. All court personnel are now paid by the state, and the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), under the chief justice, is responsible for developing a single budget for the entire judicial
The supreme court is the state’s highest court. It has a chief justice and six associate justices who hear oral arguments in cases appealed from lower courts. The Supreme Court has no jury and it makes no determinations of fact. Its purpose is to consider errors in legal procedures or in judicial interpretation of the law and hear arguments on the written record from the trial below.
The court of appeals is an intermediate appellate court composed of 15 judges who sit in panels of three. Like the supreme court, it decides only questions of law. This court was created to relieve the supreme court of some of its caseload. A party dissatisfied with the results in the trial division generally has a right to be heard by one or the other of these courts and, in some cases, both.
The Superior Court Division consists of the superior court—the court with general trial jurisdiction. This court sits at least twice a year in each county in the state and much more often in the busiest counties. The state is divided into superior court districts for electoral and administrative purposes. The senior resident superior court judge is the most senior judge in each of the administrative districts and is responsible for carrying out various administrative duties and appointing magistrates and some other court officials. The Honorable Orlando F. Hudson, Jr., is the senior resident superior court judge for Durham’s district, the 14th. The General Assembly specifies the number of judges in a judicial district based on the volume of judicial business. The constitution requires superior court judges to rotate, or “ride the circuit,” from one district to another in their division. Judges are assigned to a judicial district for a six-month period and then rotated to another district for six months. This requirement helps ensure fairness.
Most civil cases can be filed in either superior or district court. The superior court is the only court that can try felonies (major crimes). It also has jurisdiction over misdemeanors and infractions appealed from a conviction in district court.
The state is also divided into district court districts for electoral and administrative purposes. Like the superior court, the district court sits in each county’s county seat. Each district has from two to seventeen judges, depending on population, including a chief judge who handles administrative duties for the court. The Honorable Marcia H. Morey is the chief district court judge for the 14th Judicial District,. Durham’s district. Both civil and criminal cases are heard in district court. Generally, it is the proper place for cases involving amounts of $10,000 or less. Domestic relations cases involving alimony, child support, child custody, divorce, equitable distribution, and juvenile matters are also heard in this court. In criminal cases, district court has exclusive original jurisdiction over misdemeanor cases and most traffic offenses.