The Court System

The courts are the overseers of the law. They administer the law, resolve disputes under the law, and strive to apply the law in a fair and impartial manner. Ohio, like other states, is served by two separate court systems, state and federal. Both systems are organized into three basic levels of court: trial courts, intermediate courts of appeals, and a high court, or Supreme Court. The state courts are primarily concerned with cases arising under state law; the federal courts are primarily concerned with cases arising under federal law.

Ohio Trial Courts

Trial courts bear the main burden in the administration of justice. Cases begin, and in most instances are resolved, in the trial court. Ohio has several kinds of trial courts. Each court has the jurisdiction (power or authority) to handle particular kinds of cases. The trial courts in Ohio include: (1) common pleas courts, which have general civil and criminal jurisdiction, and correspondingly broad powers; (2) municipal courts and county courts, which have jurisdiction in lesser civil and criminal cases and therefore lesser powers than common pleas courts; and (3) mayors' courts, which do not have civil jurisdiction and have only very limited criminal powers. Ohio also has the Court of Claims, which handles suits against the state or its agencies and claims by victims of crime.

The common pleas court is the most important of Ohio's trial courts. It is Ohio's court of general jurisdiction; most serious civil or criminal cases must be brought there. Moreover, it is the only trial court which has the power to deal with certain matters, that is, it has exclusive jurisdiction in certain matters. For example, the common pleas court has exclusive jurisdiction over felonies (a felony is a serious crime for which the penalty is a penitentiary term or death). Generally, in civil matters, the common pleas court has exclusive jurisdiction in lawsuits seeking certain extraordinary remedies, like injunctions or restraining orders, or involving more than $10,000 (or, in areas not served by county courts, involving more than $500). Also, it has exclusive jurisdiction in probate, domestic relations, and juvenile matters. The common pleas court has no authority to hear appeals from lower trial courts, although it can hear appeals from rulings made by government administrative agencies. In lesser civil and criminal cases, the common pleas court shares the power to handle certain matters with other trial courts, that is, has concurrent jurisdiction with municipal and county courts.

Probate, domestic relations, and juvenile matters are usually handled by one or more separate divisions of the common pleas court. The probate division deals with wills and the administration of estates, adoptions, guardianships, commitment of mentally ill or retarded persons, and issues marriage licenses. It also superintends the activities and accounts of persons in positions of trust (called, generally, "fiduciaries"), such as executors or administrators of estates, guardians, and trustees. The domestic relations division deals with divorce, dissolution of marriage, annulment, legal separation, spousal support (alimony), and the child custody and support questions in such cases. The juvenile division has jurisdiction over delinquent, unruly, or neglected children, juvenile traffic offenders, and over adults who neglect, abuse, or contribute to the delinquency of children. When a juvenile (any person under age 18) is accused of an offense, whether serious or minor, the juvenile division has exclusive jurisdiction over the case.

Each of Ohio's 88 counties is served by a common pleas court. In some counties, one judge handles all the court's business; but often a common pleas court will have one or more general division judges, plus a probate judge who may also handle juvenile matters. Larger counties may have several judges in the general division plus separate judges for the probate, domestic relations, and juvenile divisions. Common pleas judges are elected for six-year terms and must be qualified attorneys with at least six years' experience.

Municipal courts and county courts are the most important of the lower trial courts in Ohio. For example, they handle traffic cases, cases involving minor injuries and damage, minor criminal cases, minor civil cases, and collection cases.

The jurisdiction of municipal courts and county courts is similar, although there are some important differences. Municipal courts have jurisdiction in civil cases not exceeding $10,000, while county courts have jurisdiction in cases not exceeding $500. Both courts are authorized to hear certain special types of lawsuits, such as disputes between landlords and tenants. Both courts can try misdemeanor cases (a misdemeanor is an offense under state or municipal law, for which the penalty is a fine, or a term of not more than one year in a local jail or workhouse, or both). Also, both courts can hold preliminary hearings in felony cases. That is, they can determine if there is probable cause to believe that a felony has been committed and that the accused in the case committed it. Neither court can try a felony case, and if probable cause is found, the accused must be bound over to the common pleas court for trial.

Every municipal and county court maintains a small claims division which hears claims for money only, not exceeding $3,000. No one needs a lawyer in small claims court, but anyone can have a lawyer if he wishes. The procedure is much simpler than in the regular municipal or county court, and hearings are informal. There is no jury, and court costs are held to a minimum.

The territories of municipal courts and county courts are established by statute and may include anything from a single city up to an entire county. The territories of county courts include only those areas not covered by a municipal court. Municipal court judges are elected for six-year terms and must be attorneys with at least six years' experience. County court judges are elected for six-year terms and must be attorneys with at least two years' experience.

Mayors’ courts are the trial courts with the most restricted jurisdiction in Ohio. Mayors’ courts can hear only minor, non-jury cases involving violations of the municipality’s ordinances and moving traffic violations under state law. Each mayor has the option to hold court and is the presiding judge of the court.

The Court of Claims is a special court located in Columbus. It hears tort and contract claims against state agencies and victim of crime claims. Victim of crime claims are claims by, or for persons who suffer injury or death as the result of a crime committed in Ohio, or claims by, or for Ohio residents who suffer injury or death as the result of a crime committed outside of Ohio. The Court of Claims has limited appellate jurisdiction in civil actions and extensive appellate jurisdiction in victim of crime claims. (Some claims against governmental entities smaller than the state [counties and cities] may be brought in common pleas court.)

The goal of the judicial system is that complete and equal justice be achieved at the trial of every case. Sometimes trial courts make mistakes; the court of appeals was established to correct these mistakes.

Ohio's intermediate court of appeals is divided into 12 districts. Each district hears appeals from the trial courts located in its district. The principal function of the court of appeals is to review cases appealed from trial courts to determine whether the law was correctly interpreted and applied. The court of appeals also has original jurisdiction in some special kinds of lawsuits. In these cases, the district court of appeals may actually hear evidence rather than work with a transcript of the evidence. Although many cases end with a decision by a district court of appeals, such courts are not the last resort but an intermediate step from the trial courts to the Supreme Court.

The most important duty of the courts of appeals in Ohio is to review questions brought to them from common pleas courts, municipal courts, and county courts. Only a final judgment or order can be appealed, and appeals generally must be on questions of law and not of fact. When a court of appeals has completed its review of a case, it will uphold (affirm) the lower court if it finds the lower court correctly interpreted and applied the law. Even if the trial court made some mistakes, a court of appeals will affirm provided the mistakes did not unfairly affect the parties in the case. If the mistakes substantially affect a party's rights they constitute plain error (or "prejudicial error"), and the court of appeals may then take whatever action is necessary to do justice. The court of appeals may reverse the trial court's decision and give final judgment to the party who should have had it in the first place. It may reverse and send the case back for a new trial, or it might simply send the case back for whatever further proceedings are needed. It can modify the trial court's judgment or order in any way.

Certain types of cases cannot be brought in a regular trial court. They must begin in a district court of appeals or the Supreme Court. These cases are often based on what are known as extraordinary writs. These writs include: (1) quo warranto, which tests a person's title to a public office, and may also be used to test the powers of private corporations (this last use is outdated); (2) mandamus, which is a means to compel government officials to do their duty; (3) prohibition, which is a means to prevent a lower court from proceeding in a particular case; and (4) procedendo, which is a means to compel a lower court to proceed in a particular case. Habeas corpus, which tests the legality of a form of imprisonment, may be begun in the court of appeals, the Supreme Court, and other courts.

The counties in Ohio are organized into 12 appellate districts, with each district served by a court of appeals. A panel (group) of three judges hears each case. Court of appeals judges are elected for six-year terms and must be attorneys with at least six years' experience.

The Supreme Court of Ohio

The Supreme Court of Ohio is the highest and most powerful court in Ohio. It is primarily a court of appeals and is Ohio's court of last resort. The Supreme Court also has original (trial) jurisdiction in the same types of extraordinary cases as the courts of appeals. The Supreme Court has some important additional duties. These duties include prescribing rules of procedure for and supervising the operation of all lower courts and controlling the practice of law.

The appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is similar to that of the courts of appeals. The Supreme Court is empowered to review final judgments and orders of lower courts; to affirm, reverse, remand, or modify judgments; and to do whatever is necessary to render a just and final determination of a case. Appeals to the Supreme Court are generally from the district courts of appeals rather than from the trial courts.

Ohio court procedure was formerly governed exclusively by statute. A 1968 amendment to the Ohio Constitution, called the Modern Courts Amendment, empowered the Supreme Court to adopt rules governing practice and procedure in all courts in Ohio and to oversee the activities of all courts. The Supreme Court has adopted complete sets of rules for civil, criminal, appellate, juvenile, and traffic procedures, as well as rules for the admission of evidence in all courts.

The Supreme Court has the duty to oversee the activities of all courts in the state and to see that justice is being administered fairly, effectively, and efficiently. The Supreme Court has published rules of superintendence and established various committees and study groups to ensure the efficient operation of all courts in Ohio.

The Supreme Court of Ohio also regulates the admission of attorneys to practice in Ohio, sets standards for the practice of law, and disciplines attorneys who do not abide by the strict ethics of their profession. See Part XI, "The Lawyer."

The Supreme Court of Ohio consists of a Chief Justice and six Justices. All are elected for six-year terms and must be attorneys with at least six years' experience in the practice of law. The Supreme Court is located in Columbus.

The Federal Courts

The federal court structure is roughly similar to the Ohio structure, with trial courts, courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court. The federal courts are primarily concerned with administering the federal law and to function independently from the state courts.

The trial courts in the federal system are the United States District Courts. The district courts are courts of general jurisdiction and correspond to Ohio's common pleas courts. The district courts handle all types of criminal cases (felonies as well as misdemeanors) which arise under federal statutes, and many kinds of civil cases. For example, district courts handle civil cases which include: cases governed solely by federal law (bankruptcies, patent and copyright, admiralty [admiralty is the branch of law which governs shipping and navigation on the high seas and on navigable inland waterways]), cases under the United States Constitution or federal statutes (cases involving interstate commerce, claims by one state against another, civil rights, and antitrust), and diversity cases (claims by a citizen of one state against a citizen of another state where the amount of the claim is $50,000 or more). For example, a diversity case might be a claim by an Ohio resident against a Kentucky resident for injuries sustained in an auto accident which occurred in Ohio. If the amount involved was $50,000 or more, this case could be heard in a federal district court located in Ohio. Because the federal system does not have a common law of its own, the law of Ohio would be applied in such a case.

Bankruptcy cases require additional explanation. District courts have the power to handle bankruptcy cases, but have referred them to the bankruptcy court. Technically, the bankruptcy court is part of the district court. However, it operates as an independent court and handles almost all aspects of bankruptcy cases.

Ohio has two federal district courts, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. The Northern District has a western division, which is based in Toledo, and an eastern division, which is based in Cleveland, with separate courts in Akron and Youngstown. The Southern District has a western division, based in Cincinnati, with a separate court in Dayton, and an eastern division, based in Columbus. There is a bankruptcy court for the Northern District, as well as the Southern District. There are bankruptcy court offices and courtrooms in Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Toledo, Youngstown, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Dayton.

Judges of the United States District Court are appointed for a life term by the President of the United States, with the advice and consent of the United States Senate. Judges of the bankruptcy court are appointed for 14-year terms by the judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the circuit where the district court is located.

The United States Courts of Appeal are intermediate courts of appeal. The United States Courts of Appeal hear appeals from the district courts and their decisions may be appealed to the United States Supreme Court. They correspond to the Ohio courts of appeals, and function in much the same manner.

The entire United States (plus its territories) is divided into 13 "circuits," with a court of appeals for each circuit. Ohio is in the Sixth Circuit, along with Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is based in Cincinnati. All judges are appointed for a life term by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.

The United States Supreme Court

Just as the Ohio Supreme Court is the highest court in Ohio, the United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation, and the court of last resort. It consists of the Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices, all of whom are appointed for life terms by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.

Disclaimer: Articles appearing on this website are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

Reprinted and distributed by Fanger & Davidson LLC with permission from the Ohio State Bar Foundation as a service to our clients and friends. Excerpted from The Law And You, A Handbook of General and Everyday Law Affecting Ohio Citizens. Prepared for the Ohio State Bar Association by the Ohio State Bar Foundation. Copyright © 1997-1999 Ohio State Bar Association. All rights reserved.