How Missouri’s Courts Work

How Missouri's Courts Work for You

How Missouri’s Courts Work

A Quick Guide to Missouri’s Courts System

What will you find at the center of every county in Missouri? The answer, of course, is the county courthouse, where on a regular basis people come to the circuit courts asking judges for justice or to solve problems that require an application of the law. These circuit courts are the first rung of the judiciary in Missouri’s court system.

Missouri has forty-five judicial circuits. The origin of “circuit” courts dates back to England where there were no courthouses when the Magna Carta established a right for people to be heard by a judge and the right to a jury trial. The judges rode a “circuit” from town to town, hearing cases in whatever building was available, most often a tavern. This also was the system used in United States frontier territories and states. Although judges today, for the most part, conduct their business in courtrooms in courthouses, the circuit label is still used.

In large circuits, there are several divisions that handle only particular matters, such as probate and juvenile cases. However, in most of Missouri’s circuit courts, the judges handle all kinds of cases from serious felonies to uncontested wills. Sometimes matters are decided by juries and sometimes they are decided by the judges. This decision whether to have a jury or a judge decide the case is left up to the parties and their lawyers in civil cases. In criminal cases, the decision is for the defendant and the defense lawyer. Municipal courts are also under the umbrella of the circuit courts.

After a case is decided at the circuit level, in some circumstances, the losing party may appeal the case. In a criminal case, the state may not appeal a finding of not guilty. Only the defendant may appeal a guilty conviction and the defendant has an absolute right to appeal that conviction. The appellate court must take the case. In other matters, the appellate court judges decide whether or not they will take an appeal on a case. The judges decide to take a case if they think there was an error in the procedure of the case or if the law was not properly followed. Often, the appellate judges will let the trial court judgment stand.

Missouri has four appellate courts — the Supreme Court of Missouri and three intermediate appeals courts — the Eastern District in St. Louis, the Western District in Kansas City and the Southern District in Springfield. Most appellate cases first go to one of the intermediate courts before the Supreme Court will consider taking the case. However, if the case involves the death penalty in a murder case or the constitutionality of either a state or federal law, the Supreme Court will hear the appeal for the first time.

The losing party in an appellate case from one of the intermediate courts may ask the Supreme Court to hear the case again and the judges will decide which cases they want to hear it. The Supreme Court will take the case if there is confusion among the intermediate courts about the issue in the case or if the judges feel the law was not properly applied. If the case involves the constitutionality of the United States Constitution, the losing party may ask the Supreme Court of the United States to hear the case.

This is a quick guide to how Missouri courts work. To learn more about the Missouri Judiciary or other law related education, civics and government topics, teachers can click here to use lesson plans or click here to request a speaker for your group.

Millie Aulbur is The Missouri Bar Director of Citizenship Education. Her primary work is developing materials and programs to assist and enhance the work of Missouri’s civics and government teachers.

Leave a Reply

Back to Top