There are 46 judicial circuits in Missouri. The state's circuit courts have several divisions in which cases are managed by circuit judges, associate circuit judges, probate judges, municipal judges and a variety of commissioners. A circuit judge is elected by all the circuit and associate circuit judges in that circuit to serve as the presiding judge, who serves as the chief administrative officer over all circuit divisions. All legal cases, except certain administrative proceedings and most cases involving "extraordinary" remedies, originate in the circuit court. It has general jurisdiction (authority) over all civil and criminal matters.
The circuit division handles all cases not specifically allocated to one of its divisions. This includes all felony cases; misdemeanor cases initiated in the circuit division; civil cases; equity cases, such as domestic relations and injunctions; cases involving extraordinary remedies such as writs; and traffic offenses.
The number of circuit judges in each circuit is set by the legislature; each circuit must have at least one circuit judge. The qualifications for circuit judges are governed by article V, section 21 of the Missouri constitution. A circuit judge must be at least 30 years old, licensed to practice law in Missouri, a United States citizen for at least 10 years, a qualified voter of the state for three years preceding selection, and a resident of the circuit in which the judge serves for at least one year.
Pursuant to article V, section 19 of the Missouri constitution, the regular term of a circuit judge is six years. In most counties, circuit judges are elected by popular vote, but in certain metropolitan counties (Clay, Greene, Jackson, Platte and St. Louis counties and the city of St. Louis), they are selected pursuant to the merit-based nonpartisan court plan.
Associate Circuit Division
Each associate circuit judge may hear and determine certain cases or classes of cases specified by law. All criminal misdemeanors and infractions are heard and decided by the associate circuit judge. In felony criminal cases, the associate circuit judge conducts a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is probable cause to find that a felony has been committed and that the defendant committed it. If probable cause is found, the defendant is "bound over" for trial in the circuit court. Associate circuit judges also may hear all civil cases. It is also important to check the court rules as certain classes of cases must be filed before an associate circuit judge.
The qualifications for associate circuit judges are governed by article V, section 21 of the Missouri constitution. An associate circuit judge must be at least 25 years old, licensed to practice law in Missouri, qualified to vote in the state and a resident of the county in which the judge serves.
Pursuant to article V, section 19 of the Missouri constitution, the regular term of an associate circuit judge is four years. In most counties, associate circuit judges are elected by popular vote, but in certain metropolitan counties (Clay, Greene, Jackson, Platte and St. Louis counties and the city of St. Louis), they are selected pursuant to the merit-based nonpartisan court plan.
The constitution requires that every county have at least one associate circuit judge. In larger counties and the city of St. Louis, there are more associate circuit judges, as provided by statute.
All circuit courts have probate divisions that handle cases involving the estates of minors, of individuals who are unable because of incapacity or disability to manage their own estates, and of individuals who have died. The division hears all litigation involving trusts, including those trusts established in wills. Disputes involving transfers to minors, personal custodianships and durable powers of attorney also are heard in the probate division. The probate division also hears cases involving the civil commitment to treatment facilities of persons who are mentally ill or who have substance abuse problems as well as cases involving the institutionalization of persons alleged to be sexually violent predators. In addition, the probate judge accepts transfers from other divisions of cases that have a relationship to the administration of a probate estate.
Many circuit courts also have family court or juvenile court divisions and also may have a drug court division. Family court divisions handle legal issues such as dissolution of marriage, legal separation, child custody and modification actions, adoptions, abuse and neglect, and matters involving juveniles. Drug court divisions are treatment-based alternatives to prison, youth services facilities and detention centers, jails and standard probation models.
In some circuits, the cases in these special divisions are heard by judges. In others, they are heard by commissioners, who have the authority to hear cases and make decisions that a judge does, but their decisions then must be reviewed by a judge. Only a judge can issue a judgment.
In counties with a population of more than 400,000, the judge of the circuit court's probate division may appoint a probate commissioner. In circuits with a drug court division, the majority of the judges in that circuit may appoint a drug commissioner. In circuits with family court divisions, the majority of circuit and associate circuit judges in that circuit may appoint a family court commissioner.
The municipal division handles municipal ordinance violations, such as traffic offenses and housing code violations. Municipalities may have these cases heard by an associate circuit judge of the county or may provide, at their own expense, a municipal judge or judges support personnel and suitable quarters for the municipal division. Most municipalities have their own municipal judges, support personnel and quarters in which these cases are heard. Cases generally are not heard by an associate circuit judge unless it is a trial de novo (a retrial of a case).
Municipal division judges are selected in the manner provided by municipal ordinance. Municipal judges must be lawyers, except in cities of fewer than 7,500 people in other than first-class counties. Non-lawyer judges must complete a course of instruction prescribed by the Supreme Court of Missouri.