North Carolina District Courts


District Court Judges

The court reorganization in three phases of the 1960s established a uniform system of district courts throughout the state. In December of 1966, district court was activated in 22 counties, followed by an additional 61 counties in December, 1968, and the remaining 17 counties in December, 1970. As district courts opened in each judicial district, all courts below the level of superior court were abolished.

All cases pending in the abolished courts were transferred to the dockets of the district court for trial. All records of the abolished courts were transferred to the Office of the Clerk of Superior Court, who is required to maintain a system of consolidated records of both superior court and district court. Counties were relieved of all expenses incident to the operation of the courts except the expense of providing adequate physical facilities.

The General Assembly has grouped North Carolina’s 100 counties into district court districts. District court must sit in at least one place in each county. District court has exclusive original jurisdiction of virtually all misdemeanors and infractions (non-criminal violations of law not punishable by imprisonment), probable cause hearings in felony cases, all juvenile proceedings and mental health hospital commitments, as well as domestic relations cases. It also exercises jurisdiction over civil cases where the amount in dispute is $10,000 or less.

District courts provide jury trial upon demand in civil cases. Appeals of civil case decisions go to the Court of Appeals on questions of law only. District courts are not authorized to empanel juries in criminal cases. Appeals of district court decisions in criminal cases are for trial de novo before a jury in superior court.

One or more district court judges are elected to four-year terms in each district. In multi-judge districts, the chief justice of the NC Supreme Court designates one of the judges as chief district court judge. Subject to supervision by the chief justice, chief district court judges exercise administrative supervision and authority over the operation of the district courts and magistrates in the district. District court judges serve full-time.

With the establishment of district courts in all of the state’s counties, the office of justice of the peace was abolished and replaced by the newly-fashioned position of magistrate. Magistrates function within district court as subordinate judicial officials. Appointed by the senior resident superior court judge upon recommendation of the clerk of superior court, magistrates serve a term of two years. The chief district court judge supervises magistrates in his or her particular district. Magistrates exercise extensive authorities within the district court division.

Magistrates try certain misdemeanor worthless check cases and civil suits designated as small claims cases. They may also accept written appearances, waivers of trial and pleas of guilty or admissions of responsibility in certain misdemeanor and infraction cases, as well as conduct initial appearances, grant bail before trial in non-capital cases and issue arrest and search warrants.

North Carolina is divided into prosecutorial districts, each of which has a district attorney who is elected to a four-year term. District attorneys represent the state in criminal actions brought in the superior and district courts in the district and in juvenile cases. District attorneys are also responsible for ensuring that infraction cases are prosecuted efficiently. In addition to prosecutorial functions, the district attorney in each district is responsible for calendaring criminal cases for trial.

The state provides legal counsel in a variety of actions and proceedings for defendants who have been determined by a judge to be financially unable to hire their own attorneys. As of fiscal year 2000-01, there were 11 public defenders and 121 assistant public defenders representing indigent persons in 13 counties. Public defenders are appointed by the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge for four-year terms. In the remaining counties, representation of indigent persons is provided almost entirely by assignment of private counsel. Private counsel is assigned by the court, the Office of Indigent Defense Services and, in certain circumstances, the public defender. There is also an Appellate Defender Office to handle criminal defense services for indigent persons who appeal convictions to the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals.

The Indigent Services Act of 2000 created this thirteen-member commission. The commission and its staff, the Office of Indigent Defense Services, are located within the judicial branch, but exercise their prescribed powers independently of the AOC. The commission and the director of the Office of Indigent Defense Services are responsible for establishing, supervising and maintaining a system for providing legal representation and related services in all cases where indigent persons are entitled to representation at state expense.

© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved