VA: Increase to District Court monetary jurisdiction advances

The Virginia General Assembly advanced several bills that would increase the monetary jurisdiction of its limited jurisdiction District Courts from $15,000 to $25,000. HB 1446 was already incorporated into HB 1590. It was HB 1590 that was approved by the House Committee for Courts of Justice last week. The full House adopted a committee amendment on January 24, putting it on the path towards adoption by that chamber as early as this week. On the Senate side, SB 774 was approved by the Senate Committee for Courts of Justice with an amendment on the 24th as well. That bill is not yet on the floor, having been referred to the Senate Finance committee instead.

If adopted, the $25,000 maximum for limited jurisdiction court would be similar to the limits in the states that border Virginia (the District of Columbia has no separate limited jurisdiction trial court).

Maryland District Court $30,000 (exclusive to $5,000)
Tennessee General Sessions Court $25,000 (exclusive up to $50)
Virginia District Court (current) $15,000 (exclusive)
North Carolina District Court $10,000 (exclusive)
West Virginia Magistrate Court $5,000 (exclusive up to $2,500)
Kentucky District Court $4,000 (exclusive)

Increasing civil monetary jurisdiction levels of courts

The push to raise the monetary limits of various courts is already in full swing this year, starting at a faster pace than normal. Already three states have bills pending to raise civil limits.

South Carolina SB 125 would increase magistrate court’s jurisdiction to $10,000 from $7,500. Virginia SB 774 would increase district court jurisdiction to $25,000 from $15,000. Finally, Wyoming SB 15 would redefine a small claim up to $7,500 from its currently $5,000.

As the legislatures of these three states are still out of session until January 11 or 12, no action has been taken on any of the bills.

MT: City courts of record?

In Montana, 92% of the state’s DUI cases are filed in the state’s limited jurisdiction courts, according to the state’s Office of Court Administrator. As part of its examination of the state’s DUI laws, the legislature’s Law and Justice Interim Committee has recommended allowing one type of these courts, City Courts, to be courts of record. The proposal has been introduced as SB 41 of 2011 and would additionally grant city judges all the powers and duties of district judges in like cases. Because these would be courts of record, review in the state’s District Courts would be as an appeal and not a trial de novo. The bill is in the state Senate awaiting committee assignment.

WY: Expanded use of district court commissioners in lieu of judges

With budget shortfalls anticipated well into the next two years, many states are considering making more use of quasi-judicial officials.

Since the adoption of its original constitution in 1889, Wyoming’s district court commissioners have been limited in the services they may perform: they may take depositions and perform other tasks assigned by law, but they cannot perform “chamber business” unless either a) the district judge is out of the county or b) it is improper for the the district judge to act in a given case. However, in Summer 2010 in testimony before the state’ legislature’s Joint Interim Judiciary Committee, then-Chief Justice Barton Voigt “observed that the commissioners are acting even when a district court judge is present in violation of the constitution and statute and he believes that that a constitutional change is needed.”

HJR 1 of 2011 would remove those prohibitions (and delete the word “chamber” from “chamber business”). If adopted, a district court commissioner could perform duties assigned by a district court judge, even if the judge is not absent from the jurisdiction of the court or recused/disqualified, subject to any restrictions the legislature may impose by law upon the authority of district court commissioners. The bill is currently pending in the House but is not yet assigned to a committee.

GA: Constitutional amendment would make Supreme Court decisions nonbinding

Georgia’s history with its Supreme Court is one of note. For nearly 75 years of statehood, there was no appellate review: a new trial before a new jury in the local court was the only procedure available for the correction of judicial error.

Enter HR 5 of 2011, a constitutional amendment being considered in the 2011 session that would remove the state’s constitutional provisions making state supreme court (and court of appeals) decisions binding on lower courts. The resolution’s preamble also makes it clear the decisions of the appellate courts would not be binding on any other party other than those involved in the judicial action at hand.

OK: State courts may not reference U.S. treaties or conventions?

Late last week, Oklahoma’s House voted to amend the state constitution to ban court references to sharia law and international law. HJR 1056 would enact the “Save Our State Amendment” and would include the following as a new paragraph of the state’s Judiciary Article (Article VII):

The Courts provided for in subsection A of this section, when exercising their judicial authority, shall uphold and adhere to the law as provided in the United States Constitution, the Oklahoma Constitution, the United States Code, federal regulations promulgated pursuant thereto, established common law, and the Oklahoma Statutes and rules promulgated pursuant thereto in making judicial decisions.  The courts shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures.  Specifically, the courts shall not consider international law or Sharia Law. The provisions of this subsection shall apply to all cases before the respective courts including, but not limited to, cases of first impression. (emphasis added)

The bill, as originally introduced, read:

The courts shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures.  Specifically, the courts shall not consider Sharia Law, international law, the constitutions, laws, rules, regulations, and decisions of courts or tribunals of other nations, or conventions or treaties, whether or not the United States is a party. The provisions of this subsection shall apply to all cases before the respective courts including, but not limited to, cases of first impression.

The original language was approved by the House Rules Committee but amended on the floor. The bill, as amended, passed on a 91-2 vote.

CO: Legislature asks for Supreme Court opinion on Citizens United

While generally courts are permitted to entertain only cases and controversies, several states allow their Supreme Court to issue advisory opinions. Colorado’s Constitution gives its Supreme Court the power to weigh in “upon important questions upon solemn occasions when required by the governor, the senate, or the house of representatives”.

Colorado’s Governor made such a request on February 9 in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. The request paid specific attention to a provision in Colorado’s constitution that states “it shall be unlawful for a corporation or labor organization to provide funding for an electioneering communication; except that any political committee or small donor committee established by such corporation or labor organization may provide funding for an electioneering communication.”

Although the governor alone could have asked for a Supreme Court advisory opinion, both chambers of the state’s legislature added their request through HJR 1011 on February 10. The joint resolution found the questions posed by the governor of “extreme importance and public interest [and] that it is essential that an immediate determination be secured…”