Article V, the judicial article of the Constitution of Missouri, was approved by Missouri voters in 1976 and implemented by the 1978 Court Reform and Revision Act which took effect January 2, 1979. The new judicial article reorganizes all former courts of limited jurisdiction into one level of trial courts as part of Missouri’s unified judicial system. Article V, Section 1 of Missouri’s Constitution established Missouri circuit courts as the only trial court in the state with jurisdiction over all criminal and civil cases. Section 14 of Article V also permits the circuit courts to issue and determine original remedial writs.
Missouri’s single trial court, the circuit courts, absorbed the functions of the previously limited jurisdiction courts: magistrate, probate, municipal, common plea, and the St. Louis Court of Criminal Corrections. To perform these functions, the new judicial article provided for the following divisions within the circuit courts:
* Circuit Divisions.
* Probate Divisions.
* Associate Circuit Divisions.
* Juvenile Divisions.
* Municipal Divisions.
* Other divisions as established by local court rule.
The judicial article dictates that the State of Missouri be divided into convenient judicial circuits of contiguous counties. Currently, Missouri is divided into 45 judicial circuits comprised of from one to five counties.
Within the divisions of the circuit courts there are three levels of jurisdiction: the circuit, the associate circuit, and the municipal levels.
The circuit level has original jurisdiction over all cases whether criminal or civil. Circuit judges may hear and determine all cases and matters within the jurisdiction of the circuit courts.
Associate circuit judges may hear civil matters that do not exceed $25,000, misdemeanor or infraction matters, and felony matters prior to the filing of the information. Associate circuit judges may also hear municipal ordinance violations in municipalities that have fewer than 400,000 people and have no municipal judge, juvenile matters in counties with fewer than 70,000 people, and small claims matters as prescribed in Chapter 482 RSMo. In probate matters, associate circuit judges have general equitable jurisdiction. By assignment by the presiding judge, or local court rule, an associate circuit judge may hear any matter pending in the circuit court.
Finally, Article V, Section 6 of the Missouri Constitution provides that an associate circuit judge is eligible to sit temporarily on any court. This provision allows associate circuit judges to hear any case or class of cases upon assignment by the Supreme Court.
The third jurisdictional level of the circuit courts, the municipal division, hears only municipal ordinance violations. Under the new article, the governing body of any municipality with a population of less than 400,000 may elect to have an associate circuit judge hear municipal matters in the first instance.
The Constitution of the State of Missouri authorizes three types of judges in Missouri’s circuit courts - circuit judges, associate circuit judges, and municipal judges.
On January 2, 1979, the new judicial article established as circuit judges those judges who were circuit judges prior to that date, probate judges in counties with more than 65,000 people, and judges of the former St. Louis Court of Criminal Corrections. Section 15 of the Missouri Constitution requires there be at least one circuit judge in each of Missouri’s 45 judicial circuits. The number of circuit judges is determined by the general assembly.
The second type of judge established by Missouri’s Constitution is the associate circuit judge. On January 2, 1979, former magistrate judges and probate ex-officio magistrate judges in counties with fewer that 65,000 inhabitants became associate circuit judges. The new judicial article mandates there be at least one resident associate circuit judge in each county and that the number of associate circuit judges be authorized according to the county populations.
The third type of judge in Missouri’s circuit court system is the municipal judge. Municipalities with 400,000 people or more must establish municipal divisions over which a municipal judge presides. Communities of fewer than 400,000 may establish municipal divisions to hear ordinance violations, or the municipality may request these matters be heard through the associate circuit division of the circuit courts.
The Constitution of Missouri establishes the terms and qualifications of Missouri’s circuit, associate circuit, and municipal judges.
To qualify for the six-year term of circuit judge a person must have been a United States citizen for ten years, a qualified Missouri voter for three years, and a resident of the circuit for one year. The person must be between 30 and 70 years of age and must be licensed to practice law in Missouri.
Associate circuit judges serve four-year terms. An associate circuit judge must be a qualified Missouri voter, a resident of the county in which he or she presides, an attorney licensed to practice law in Missouri, and between the ages of 25 and 70.
To qualify as a municipal judge, the person must be between the ages of 25 and 75 and must be a Missouri resident. If the municipality in which the judge serves has a population of 7,500 or more, the judge must be an attorney. If the municipality has fewer that 7,500 people, a judge who is not an attorney must complete a special course of instruction prescribed by the Supreme Court. The term of a municipal judge is decided by the municipality but may not be less than two years.
Circuit and associate circuit judges are either elected in the circuit or county in which they are to serve or they are selected through Missouri’s nonpartisan selection plan. Municipal judges are elected or appointed according to the manner prescribed by municipal ordinance or charter.
In 40 of Missouri’s 45 judicial circuits, the circuit and associate circuit judges are elected on a partisan ticket. Five circuits have adopted the nonpartisan selection plan.
Under the nonpartisan method, circuit and associate circuit judges are appointed by the governor from a list of three names submitted by the appropriate Circuit Judicial Commission. Each five-member commission includes the chief judge of the appellate district, two lawyers from that circuit and two citizens from the judicial circuit, not members of the Bar, who are selected by the governor. If a judge is retained in office by the voters in the first general election after his or her first 12 months in office, the judge serves a full six-year (circuit judge) or four-year (associate circuit judge) term.
Article V, Section 15(3) of the Missouri Constitution, adopted by the voters in 1976, creates the position of presiding judge in each judicial circuit. The presiding judge has the general administrative authority over the circuit court and its divisions. In circuits with more than one circuit judge, the circuit and associate circuit judges of the circuit select a circuit judge as presiding judge.
Presiding judges throughout Missouri have assumed extensive administrative duties. Subject to the authority of the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court, the presiding judge has general administrative authority over all judicial personnel and court officials in the circuit. Other administrative responsibilities include preparing the circuit budget, record keeping, space management, supervision of municipal courts, and coordination of court activities within the circuit.
To improve the administration of Missouri’s circuit courts and to assist the presiding judge in carrying out these responsibilities, the circuit judges of the circuit may adopt local court rules. The court rules may address issues such as centralized or divisional filing of cases; cases or classes of cases which are heard by associate circuit judges; other filing, docketing and assignment procedures; and provision for maintaining court records.
Finally, to facilitate the efficient management of a circuit’s case load, the presiding judge has the authority to assign judges to hear cases that may be outside their usual jurisdiction. This authority includes the assignment of cases anywhere within the circuit and the assignment can be made either on a case-by-case or class-of-case basis. The expanded responsibilities of the presiding judge are subject to the provision of Article V of the Constitution of Missouri.
Presiding judges are exercising their assignment authority throughout the State of Missouri. Many cases, which formerly were within the exclusive jurisdiction of the circuit judges, are increasingly being handled by associate circuit judges upon assignment by the presiding judge.