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An Introduction to the Courts of Oregon


Linn County CourthouseThroughout history, people have had disputes and have needed some means to settle their disputes. As civil societies develop, they need an orderly system of conflict resolution.

One system that developed in "western" cultures is the "law court" or court of law. In England, those early law courts developed a "body of law" called the common law, which defined both the rights of the people and the government and the duties people owe each other and their government. There was no legislature yet to adopt statutes.

English settlers brought this common law with them to the American Colonies, where it developed into the American common law. Over time, state and federal constitutions and statutes have superseded much American common law. Courts continue to look to the common law for guidance if no statute defines the rights and duties in a particular case.

As in other states, courts in Oregon are both rooted in this common law tradition and governed by a state constitution and statutes that supersede the common law. Oregon's statutes are organized by subject matter in a set of books called Oregon Revised Statutes (ORS).

As in other states, Oregon law has two broad branches: civil law and criminal law, each with origins in the common law and each now governed primarily by statute.

  • Civil law includes statutes and "case law" that define or interpret individuals' and organizations' private rights in their relationships and disputes that involve property, contracts, personal injury, family relationships, tax, or government rules and regulations.
  • Because Oregon does not have laws that define every private right, courts rely on the "court-made" law called "common law" to resolve some disputes.

  • Criminal law is the body of laws that define a person's basic rights in and duties to preserve a peaceful and safe society. A person who violates the duties to preserve social peace and safety may be guilty of a crime "against the people" and so face jail, prison, or some other punishment. In addition, if the lawbreaker's act injured another (the "victim"), the victim may have a right to a private, civil law claim for damages.

Modern criminal law is almost all statutory. Criminal cases require courts to decide whether and how certain criminal laws apply and whether those laws as applied violate the state or federal constitution.

The legislature can change the common law by enacting a statute, so long as the governor does not veto the new law. The courts must follow that law so long as it does not conflict with the state or federal constitution. However, if no statute "governs" the issue in a particular case, the court may look to the common law rules for guidance.

When an appellate court must interpret statutory or common law in order to decide a case, the court's decision becomes "precedent" for deciding future cases with similar issues.

  • A precedent that interprets a statute makes that interpretation part of the statute.
  • A precedent that applies the common law to a new situation becomes part of the common law.

Although courts usually "follow precedent," courts may modify the earlier common law rules in some circumstances.

The legislature enacts other statutes that affect courts as well. The legislature determines the budget for the state courts and defines the amounts they charge for filing fees and other court fees. The legislature also defines how state courts collect fines and distribute the money collected.

Courts in Oregon

Within its borders, Oregon has four types of courts in the judicial branch:

  • a unified system of state trial and appellate courts, called the Oregon Judicial Department;
  • locally funded, limited jurisdiction municipal courts, county courts, and justice of the peace courts;
  • federal courts; and
  • tribal courts.

Oregon also has a number of administrative boards that function like courts in areas governed by administrative agency rules as well as statutes. Examples include the Land Use Board of Appeals and the Workers' Compensation Board. These boards are not in the judicial branch; they are agencies in the executive branch of government (you will find more information on the executive branch at Although these boards are not courts, they do have legal authority to hear certain disputes and make decisions about the parties' legal rights in those disputes. Parties may appeal from those decisions to the state appellate courts.

Municipal, county, and justice courts are "local" courts outside the state-funded court system. Their jurisdiction is limited to violations, lesser crimes, and some other less serious cases. The Oregon Judicial Department, which is the state court system, has no administrative control over those local courts. Here are links to information in the Oregon Bluebook on

Oregon State Courts

Oregon state courts include the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Tax Court, and 36 circuit courts in 27 judicial districts. These state courts are part of the Oregon Judicial Department. Here is a chart on the Oregon Judicial Department's Court Jurisdiction Structure.

The Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court is the administrative head and chief executive officer of the Oregon Judicial Department. The Chief Justice supervises the state court system, makes rules and issues orders to carry out the duties of the office, appoints the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals and the presiding judges of the state trial courts, adopts rules that establish procedures for all state courts, and supervises the statewide fiscal plan and budget for all state courts.

The State Court Administrator is the Judicial Department's chief operating officer and assists the Chief Justice in administering and supervising the state courts through the various divisions of the Office of the State Court Administrator. Each division has a page on this site that lists the division's major responsibilities and contact information. Here is a graphic organization chart (PDF) showing the divisions but not the division responsibilities or contact information.

State court judges must be United States citizens, Oregon residents for at least three years, and lawyers admitted to practice in Oregon. They serve six-year terms and run for nonpartisan election.  When a state court judge retires, resigns, or dies before completing a term, the Governor may appoint another qualified person to the position. To keep that position, the appointed person must run for election for a full six-year term at the next general election.

Oregon State Trial Courts

Oregon has two types of state trial courts:

  • circuit courts, which are "general jurisdiction" courts, and
  • the Oregon Tax Court, whose jurisdiction is limited to cases involving taxes.

Up until January 1998, Oregon had a third state trial court called the district court, which had limited jurisdiction over smaller civil cases and lesser crimes.  On January 15, 1998, the district courts merged into the circuit courts.

Circuit judges are elected within the judicial district in which they serve. The Tax Court judge is elected in a statewide election.

The Supreme Court may appoint any elected judge or eligible person to serve as judge pro tempore, or temporary judge, of the Oregon Tax Court or any circuit court. To be eligible, a person must be a resident of Oregon and have been a member in good standing of the Oregon State Bar for least three years before the appointment. Judges pro tempore stretch the Judicial Department's limited resources and cover cases where the regular judge is unavailable (for example, is ill) or may have a conflict of interest and must avoid participating in the case.

Circuit Courts

Each of Oregon's 36 counties has a circuit court. In most counties, the court has its offices in the county courthouse. In a few counties, the court has offices and courtrooms in more than one location.

The state is divided into 27 judicial districts, each of which has one or more counties. State law determines the number of judges elected in each district, generally based on population and volume of cases. Because some Oregon counties have relatively small populations and caseloads, the legislature has combined them into multicounty judicial districts.

As of January 2007, Oregon has 173 circuit judge positions.

In each judicial district, the Chief Justice appoints a presiding judge. The presiding judge has general administrative authority and supervision over the district to apportion the workload, make rules, and issue administrative orders. Each district also has a professional trial court administrator to help the presiding judge manage the court's operations and local budget. Several multicounty districts have a trial court administrator for each county.

The circuit court is Oregon's trial court of general jurisdiction. This means it hears cases regardless of the subject matter, amount of money involved, or the severity of the crime alleged. The circuit court is a "court of record," which means that an official court reporter or special audio or video recording system records every word of most cases except small claims and noncriminal offenses such as violations. The "record" is used in any appeal. Most appeals are "on the record," which means that the appellate court does not hold a new trial but relies on the record and on oral and written arguments to decide whether the trial court's decision was proper.

Among other powers, the circuit court has the power in civil cases to

  • dissolve marriages and distribute the assets of the parties;
  • award or change legal custody of children;
  • determine who has title to land;
  • distribute a decedent's property and possessions;
  • preside over trials;
  • commit juveniles to state institutions and place dependent children in substitute care;
  • approve adoptions;
  • commit mentally ill persons to state hospitals; and
  • issue injunctions.

In criminal cases, the circuit court:

  • conducts pretrial hearings and trials;
  • sentences convicted persons to Oregon's "corrections" system (e.g., jail, prison, probation); and
  • imposes the death penalty in certain "capital" murder cases.

Decisions appealed from circuit court go directly to the Court of Appeals, except for cases where the circuit court sentenced a defendant to death.  Those death penalty appeals go directly to the Supreme Court.

Oregon Tax Court

In 1961, the legislature created the Tax Court to encourage uniform application of tax laws statewide. The Tax Court is a special court that has exclusive, statewide jurisdiction to hear only cases that involve Oregon's tax laws, including income taxes, corporate excise taxes, property taxes, timber taxes, cigarette taxes, local budget laws, and property tax limitations. The court is located in Salem and hears most cases there. There are no jury trials, and appeals go directly to the Supreme Court. The Tax Court has one judge.

The Oregon Tax Court has two divisions—a Regular Division and the Magistrate Division.

Magistrate Division

The Tax Court judge appoints a presiding magistrate and other magistrates to hear cases in the Magistrate Division. The Magistrate Division tries or mediates all tax appeals, unless the Tax Court judge assigns the case to the Regular Division. A party may appeal from a magistrate's decision to the judge of the Tax Court, except in cases filed as small claims. Decisions in small claims procedures are final and not appealable.  Appeals from Regular Division decisions go directly to the Supreme Court.

Hearings in the Magistrate Division are often informal proceedings. The rules of evidence may not apply, and the proceedings are not "reported" or recorded. Hearings may be by telephone or in person and are held around the state. A taxpayer may be represented by a lawyer, public accountant, real estate broker, or appraiser.

The Oregon Tax Court's opinions are published in the Oregon Tax Reports, cited as "OTR."

Oregon Appellate Courts

Oregon has two state appellate courts:

Judges on each appellate court are elected to six-year terms in nonpartisan, statewide  elections. They must be citizens of the United States and members of the Oregon State Bar. Each court has its offices in Salem and usually hears cases in the courtroom in the Supreme Court Building.  Each court travels several times a year to law schools, universities, and high schools where the court hears oral arguments and meets with students to discuss the court's work.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals are responsible for the administration of all internal functions of their respective courts.

The State Court Administrator manages the general administrative functions of both courts through the Appellate Court Records Section.  The Appellate Court Records Section processes all documents filed in cases on appeal, schedules oral arguments on those cases, distributes opinions, issues appellate judgments, and handles requests for case information.

The Oregon Rules of Appellate Procedure (ORAP) govern the appeal process in both appellate courts. The Oregon Appellate Court Style Manual provides guidelines for style and citation of authorities in appellate briefs. Both documents are available from the Publications Section.

The timely filing of a notice of appeal in the appellate court transfers jurisdiction from the lower court to the appellate court. With a few exceptions, the appellate court then has sole authority to act on all motions, issue show-cause orders, set briefing schedules, strike briefs, set time of oral argument, and decide the case. The appellate court may dismiss a case at any time during the appellate process if the person who filed the appeal (appellant) fails to pursue the appeal or fails to comply with statutory requirements or the ORAP. The appellate court may also dismiss a case on appellant's motion or the respondent's motion for good cause. Here is a chart on Appeals in Oregon Courts.

Oregon Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals, created in 1969, is the first level of appeal following trial. The court has jurisdiction to

  • hear all civil and criminal appeals from circuit court, except death penalty cases and Tax Court Appeals, and
  • review most state administrative agency actions.

The Court of Appeals has thirteen elected judges. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court appoints the Chief Judge from among the thirteen elected judges on the Court of Appeals.

When the Court of Appeals has a vacancy or otherwise needs another judge to help (for example, to substitute for a judge who is ill or has a conflict of interest), the Supreme Court may appoint a Supreme Court judge, a circuit judge, or a Tax Court judge to serve as judge pro tempore, or temporary judge, of the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals has one of the heaviest caseloads of any state intermediate appellate court. To manage the heavy caseload, the court divides the judges into four panels or departments of three judges each to hear appeals. The Chief Judge is not a member of any one panel and may substitute for a member of any panel who is not available or has a conflict of interest.

Each month, the Chief Judge assigns a group of cases to each panel. For each case, the panel evaluates the trial record and the parties' written briefs and oral arguments that describe and analyze claims that the trial court erred. In some cases, the panel will agree to affirm the trial court without writing a formal opinion. In other cases, one member of the panel drafts an opinion that explains the result and the panel's reasoning. A panel member who disagrees may draft a dissenting opinion.  The panel reviews the draft opinion(s) in conference with the Chief Judge before deciding whether to adopt or revise the decision and draft opinion.

Once a panel adopts an opinion, it circulates the draft opinion to all judges on the court for comment. In some cases, the full court considers the case in a "full court conference."

From the Court of Appeals, a party may petition the Supreme Court to review the case, as discussed below.

Oregon Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the Oregon judicial branch.  The court has seven elected justices. They choose one of their own to serve a six-year term as Chief Justice. The only court that may reverse or modify a decision of the Oregon Supreme Court is the United States Supreme Court.

When the Supreme Court has a vacancy or otherwise needs another judge to help (for example, to substitute for a judge who is ill or has a conflict of interest), it may appoint a qualified retired member of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals judge, a circuit judge, or a Tax Court judge to serve as judge pro tempore, or temporary judge.

The Supreme Court has "discretionary review" of cases from the Court of Appeals. A party who is dissatisfied with the Court of Appeals' decision may petition the Supreme Court to review that decision. The Supreme Court can choose to accept or deny the petition.

In some cases, the Supreme Court has "direct review," which means that the case goes directly to the Supreme Court without first being considered by the Court of Appeals.

The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over the following matters.

  1. Direct review of circuit court decisions in
    • death penalty cases
    • certain labor law injunctions
  2. Direct review from decisions of the Oregon Tax Court
  3. Discretionary review of Court of Appeals decisions and certified questions from the Court of Appeals
  4. Direct review of certain agency proceedings, including
    • prison siting decisions
    • Energy Facility Siting Council decisions
    • certain solid waste disposal site selection decisions
  5. Direct but discretionary review of certified questions of law from a federal court or court of another state
  6. Original proceedings (court has discretion whether to hear a particular case), including
    • mandamus—orders an official to carry out a certain legal function
    • habeas corpus—challenges legality of personal detention
    • quo warranto—challenges an official's right to hold office
    • challenges to ballot titles, explanatory statements, and statements of fiscal impact
    • reapportionment review (every ten years)
  7. Practice of law proceedings—admissions to the practice of law, and disciplinary proceedings to reprimand, suspend, or disbar attorneys after trial by the Disciplinary Board
  8. Judicial fitness and disability—disciplinary proceedings to censure, suspend, or remove of a judge after investigation and recommendation of the Commission on Judicial Fitness and disability


This Introduction is very brief. The Oregon Judicial Department encourages you to learn more about our courts through this website and by visiting other court websites, your local library, and your local courts.