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About the Oregon Judicial Department

The Oregon Judicial Branch is a unified system of state circuit courts (trial courts), appellate courts (Oregon Supreme Court and Oregon Court of Appeals), and the Tax Court, known together as the Oregon Judicial Department (OJD). Its judges have the responsibility to enforce the rule of law by deciding criminal, civil, family, and other types of legal disputes; to interpret and apply the state and federal constitutions and statutes in decisions on cases; and to hold hearings and trials throughout the state. The role of the state courts is to ensure that all Oregonians receive fair and accessible justice by providing due process (respecting all legal rights that are owed to a person), protecting individual rights, and preserving community welfare.
 
All OJD judges – including those for the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, the circuit courts, and the Tax Court are elected to six-year terms in non-partisan elections. The Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court is the administrative head of OJD. The Chief Justice supervises the entire state court system; issues orders and adopts rules to ensure the effective administration of OJD; adopts procedural rules for the state courts; supervises the statewide fiscal plan and budget for all Oregon state courts; and appoints the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, the presiding judges of the circuit courts, the presiding judge of the Tax Court, and the State Court Administrator.
 
Like the United States government, Oregon has three separate but equal branches of state government established by the Oregon Constitution to provide Oregonians with a civilized, safe, and fair society. The Legislative Branch creates laws – to ensure liberty, the Executive Branch administers and enforces the laws – to maintain order, and the Judicial Branch resolves disputes according to the law – to establish justice. Each of the three branches were given the power to perform specific and different government functions (this is called the separation of powers), but they also have limited power over each other’s actions. The Legislature may pass a law, but the Governor of the Executive Branch can veto the law, and the Judicial Branch has the power to decide if the law violates the state constitution. This ensures that our government has a system of checks and balances to prevent any one branch or official from becoming too powerful. 
 
The Constitution also gives citizens the power to participate in checks and balances of the government, using constitutional rights like the right to vote; the right to seek, receive, and pass on information to make voting decisions; the right to draft laws (called initiatives); the right to run for public office themselves; and the right to lawfully protest and engage in free speech to demonstrate dissatisfaction with how government is performing its duties.
 
 
 

​Oregon circuit courts are Oregon’s trial courts that by law, decide all types of cases (this is called general jurisdiction). Circuit courts decide criminal, civil, domestic relations, traffic, juvenile, small claims, violations, abuse prevention act, probate, mental commitments, adoption, and guardianship cases. As the “courts of record,” every word spoken during a trial in the circuit courts is recorded and preserved to be available if the court’s decision is appealed.

Cicuit courts are located in each of Oregon’s 36 counties that are organized into 27 judicial districts across Oregon. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court appoints a presiding judge for a two-year term in each judicial district, who administers, supervises, and distributes the workload within the district. Daily business operations of the circuit courts including personnel, budget and finance, and jury management are managed by Trial Court Administrators, who are supervised by the presiding judge.

In addition to handling all types of cases, the trial courts have been actively involved in both legislatively initiated and self-initiated programs to provide improved case resolution processes and decisions for the people and cases that come before them. The courts support, as resources permit, treatment courts (drug, alcohol, mental health, veterans courts), family courts, juvenile court improvement programs, parental education programs, domestic relations centers and website resources for self-represented litigants, arbitration and mediation programs, and jury management programs (one-trial/one day service).

 

​The Oregon Court of Appeals decides civil and criminal appeals from the circuit courts (except death penalty cases and Tax Court appeals) and cases involving challenges to administrative agency actions and rules. Thirteen elected judges sit on the court and are divided into four panels that consider matters and cases assigned to them by the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals. The Chief Judge participates in each panel as a nonvoting judge and also substitutes as a voting judge in the place of a judge who is not available or has a conflict of interest (such as any connection to the parties; knowledge of the facts of the case; financial interest; or relationship with one of the case attorneys). An additional two-judge panel can be formed to include the Chief Judge and one judge selected from any of the four panels for review of certain substantive motions (motions that concern the rules and laws that determine the rights and responsibilities of individuals and groups) filed in appeals or judicial reviews cases. 

After reviewing an appeal, a panel may decide to agree with the circuit court decision or draft an opinion on the appeal that explains the panel’s reasoning – and if any panel member disagrees, that member writes a dissenting opinion. The panel reviews the opinion and any dissents with the Chief Judge before deciding to adopt or revise the decision. Once the panel adopts an opinion, it is circulated to all thirteen appeals court judges for comment, who may then agree with the reviewing panel's opinion or decide that the appeal should be considered en banc (reviewed by the full thirteen-judge court).

​The Oregon Supreme Court is Oregon’s highest court and “the court of last resort” for the interpretation of Oregon law in the state court system. The court consists of seven elected justices, each of whom serves a six-year term. Its primary work is to perform discretionary review of petitions that challenge Court of Appeals decisions (meaning the court will choose to review any particular petition based on a determination that it presents an important question of state law). Three or more justices must vote to allow review of the appeal – otherwise, the Court of Appeals decision becomes final. 

Some cases, (cases of direct review or original jurisdiction) go directly to the Supreme Court as required by state statute or the Oregon Constitution, bypassing the Court of Appeals. These include automatic review of circuit court cases where the death penalty has been imposed; Oregon Tax Court appeals; attorney and judge discipline matters; certain election-related matters; and cases where Supreme Court review is mandated by statute because the case is of unusual legal significance or will have a statewide impact (labor disputes; prison, energy facility, and waste disposal site decisions; crime victim rights; unlawful imprisonment challenges (habeas corpus); appeals of court orders to suppress evidence or dismiss a case (mandamus petitions); and direct review or appeals of cases that the Legislature calls for the court to consider). Other responsibilities of the Oregon Supreme Court include review and approval of various rules, amendments, and Uniform Trial Court Rules that affect the practice of law in Oregon.

​The Oregon Tax Court is a specialized trial-level court with exclusive statewide jurisdiction in all questions of law or fact related to state tax laws. The court hears tax appeals that include personal income tax, property tax, corporate excise tax, timber tax, cigarette tax, local budget law, and constitutional property tax limitations. 

The court has two divisions, the Magistrate Division and the Regular Division. Tax law appeals are first heard in the Magistrate Division by a magistrate who is an appointed, sworn judicial officer (trained and experienced in tax law). If the parties cannot resolve the dispute through the Magistrate Division's initial mediation process, the magistrate holds a trial and writes a final decision. The Magistrate’s opinion may be appealed to the Regular Division. Cases in the Regular Division are heard "de novo" (where the case is tried as a new case) by the Tax Court judge – an elected judicial officer. The judge’s final decision is written as an opinion or order. Appeals on the decision of the Regular Division are taken directly to the Oregon Supreme Court.

​Oregon’s State Court Administrator supports and assists the Chief Justice in performing administrative authority and supervision over the budget and resources of a statewide, state-funded court system that includes the appellate, circuit, and tax courts; establishes and manages statewide administrative programs, policies, and procedures for OJD; supervises administration of OJD’s central business and infrastructure services for the court system, such as budget, accounting, procurement, human resources, legal, audit, education and outreach, self-represented services, information technology infrastructure, and the ongoing development of Oregon eCourt technology.

These responsibilities are carried out principally through the functions of eleven divisions and programs, including Executive Services; Appellate Court Services; Business and Fiscal Services; Court Language Access Services; Enterprise Technology Services; Human Resource Services; Juvenile and Family Court Programs; Legal Counsel; Communication, Education, and Court Management; Security and Emergency Preparedness; and the Internal Audit Program.

The State Court Administrator’s Office also coordinates OJD’s response to legislative bills affecting the Judicial Branch or OJD as a state entity, prepares fiscal impact statements, serves as secretary to the Judicial Conference, and provides other support to OJD as required.

Municipal Courts function as city government's "judicial branch." Municipal courts are not part of the state government courts in Oregon. Not all Oregon cities have a Municipal Court, but those that do, hear cases involving violations of city laws (ordinances) and some state statutes that regulate animal control, fire control, parking, and traffic violations with city limits.

County Courts exist in seven eastern Oregon counties. The Board of Commissioners in those counties acts as the County Court, each with a county judge who also chairs the county commission and has limited judicial functions. The county judge, whose primary job involves non-judicial administrative responsibilities as chair of the county commission, may handle either probate and juvenile cases, or both, within the county. 

Justice Courts are funded by county government, but are under the administrative authority of the State of Oregon, which also pays the salaries of the 13 elected Justice Court judges and their staff. The judge of a justice court is called a Justice of the Peace, and is elected to serve for six years. Justice Courts are the equivalent of city government municipal courts in that they hear cases involving minor traffic and boating violations, fish and game offenses, small civil claims, violations of some county ordinances (excessive noise, dogs running at large), and can perform weddings in a specific section of the county to which the justice court is assigned. Most misdemeanors, all felonies, most civil cases, and some appeals of justice court decisions are heard in the state circuit courts.

Tribal Courts are an important part of tribal self-government in Oregon’s Indian Nations. Most tribes have their own constitutions and justice codes that determine how tribal courts resolve civil and criminal matters that occur on reservation lands and property. Some tribes choose to use native customs and traditional forms of dispute resolution and other tribes use an adversarial process (involving a plaintiff and defendant) to settle disputes. 

Federal Courts (United States district courts) are the "trial courts" of the United States federal court system. The United States District Court for the District of Oregon has four courthouses – located in Eugene, Medford, Pendleton, and Portland. Federal district courts hear cases related to federal law, administrative actions of federal agencies, or the United States Constitution. The federal appellate court, called the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, is based in San Francisco. It has offices in and hears appeals from lower federal courts in states belonging to the “Ninth Circuit” including Alaska, Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Northern Marianas Islands, Oregon, and Washington. Decisions of the federal appellate courts may be appealed to the United States Supreme Court. 

Federal courts also handle all bankruptcy cases. The Federal Bankruptcy Court for the District of Oregon hears cases in two locations – Portland and Eugene.

 


 

Judicial Branch Affiliates 

The following affiliates are not part of the state court system:
Creates, reviews, and amends the Oregon Rules of Civil Procedure that govern procedure and practice in all Oregon circuit courts (except small claims)
 
Office of Public Defense 
Services
Provides lawyers for qualified people who cannot afford a lawyer in criminal, juvenile, and mental commitment cases
 
Investigates complaints about the conduct of judges conduct and recommends discipline
 
Regulates the practice of law and lawyer conduct in Oregon

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