The Mississippi judiciary is a four-tiered system composed of trial and appellate courts. The Mississippi Constitution created four courts, including the Supreme Court of Mississippi, the circuit courts, chancery courts, and justice courts. The constitution provides that the legislature may create and establish inferior courts as necessary. The four tiers of the judicial structure include the courts of limited jurisdiction, courts of general jurisdiction, the intermediate appellate court, and the court of last resort.
Courts of limited jurisdiction include municipal courts, justice courts, and county courts. These courts have concurrent jurisdiction over civil and criminal matters, and appeals from these courts may be made to the circuit or chancery court.
Municipal courts are widely referred to as city or police courts. Municipal courts exist in all cities, towns, and villages with populations greater than ten thousand. In 2016 there were 226 municipal courts in Mississippi. Municipal courts hear cases involving violations of municipal ordinances, misdemeanor criminal offenses, and traffic violations that occur within the city limits. In limited cases, the municipal court may serve as the juvenile court for the jurisdiction. Municipal court judges are attorneys appointed by municipal authorities—typically, the mayor or the city council. Municipal court judgeships are considered part-time positions, and most municipal judges also maintain active law practices.
The justice court is the only court of limited jurisdiction created by the Mississippi Constitution of 1890. While the constitution originally granted justice courts jurisdiction over civil matters in excess of five hundred dollars, the legislature has modified the jurisdictional amount of justice courts to include civil actions under thirty-five hundred dollars. Justice courts also have limited jurisdiction over certain criminal matters. Typically, justice courts adjudicate misdemeanor criminal offenses, including traffic offenses that occur in the county; conduct initial and preliminary hearings in felony cases; make bail decisions; and entertain requests for search and arrest warrants. Justice court judges are elected to four-year terms via partisan elections. Qualifications include state and county residency, a high school diploma or general equivalency diploma, and, once elected, completion of annual legal training provided by the Mississippi Judicial College. As of 2016 there were 197 judges presiding over 83 Justice Courts.
County courts are authorized by the legislature and are required in counties with populations greater than fifty thousand and optional in all other counties. Mississippi currently has twenty-one county courts, with thirty county court judges. They have jurisdiction over a variety of civil and criminal matters, including misdemeanor criminal offenses as well as noncapital felony cases transferred by the circuit court. County courts also have jurisdiction over civil matters that involve amounts less than two hundred thousand dollars and have exclusive jurisdiction over matters involving eminent domain, the partition of personal property, and unlawful entry and detainer.
In addition, county courts function as youth courts. In counties that lack county courts, the chancery or family court serves as the youth court. In Mississippi, youth courts hear matters involving juveniles including but not limited to delinquency cases, cases of abuse and neglect, dependency cases, and cases involving children in need of supervision. The youth court is a civil court whose primary focus is the protection of the best interest of the child.
Mississippi currently has twenty-one county court judges. To qualify as a county court judge, individuals must be at least twenty-six years of age, residents of the state, and practicing attorneys for five years. Candidates must meet all voter eligibility requirements and cannot have been convicted of certain felonies. County court judges serve four-year terms in office.
The Mississippi Constitution of 1890 created two courts of general jurisdiction, circuit and chancery courts. The state currently has twenty-two circuit court districts. Circuit courts are authorized to hear civil matters with two hundred dollars or more in controversy. As such, they have considerable concurrent jurisdiction with the justice and county courts. Circuit courts also hear all criminal cases involving adults charged with felony offenses. Moreover, circuit courts possess appellate jurisdiction over appeals from justice or municipal courts and certain administrative proceedings. Mississippi currently has fifty-three circuit court judges. Candidates for circuit court judge must be at least twenty-six years of age, residents of the state, and practicing attorneys for five years.
Chancery courts are courts of equity created by the Mississippi Constitution of 1890. Chancery courts have jurisdiction over cases involving matters in equity, divorce and alimony, testamentary and of administration, minors’ business, idiocy and lunacy, certain real estate actions, and a variety of other actions. Mississippi has twenty chancery court districts and forty-nine chancery court judges. Like county and circuit court judges, chancellors must be at least twenty-six years of age, residents of the state, and practicing attorneys for five years. In addition, candidates seeking the office of chancery court judge must meet all voter eligibility requirements and cannot have been convicted of certain felonies. Chancery judges serve four-year terms in office.
In 1993 the legislature created the Court of Appeals to serve as the intermediate appellate court for the state. While all appeals proceed directly to the Supreme Court of Mississippi, the Court of Appeals is authorized to hear cases assigned by the Supreme Court. Decisions handed down by the Court of Appeals may be reviewed by the Supreme Court if a party files a petition for writ of certiorari. However, the decision to grant or deny the petition is discretionary, and the Supreme Court does not choose to hear all cases. The Court of Appeals is composed of ten judges who serve eight-year terms following nonpartisan and staggered elections in five districts. Candidates for the Court of Appeals must possess the same qualifications as individuals seeking election to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court of Mississippi (the court of last resort) is the only appellate court created by the Mississippi Constitution. While it is authorized to assign cases to the Court of Appeals, state law requires the Supreme Court to retain cases involving the death penalty, election contests, utility rate regulation, and public bond issues as well as cases in which a lower court has held a statute unconstitutional. In addition, the Supreme Court will retain cases involving fundamental and urgent issues of broad public importance; cases involving the constitutionality of a statute, ordinance, court rule, or administrative rule or regulation; and cases involving inconsistency or conflict between the decisions rendered by the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. In addition to appellate jurisdiction, the Supreme Court of Mississippi is responsible for rules involving trials and appeals. The rule-making power of the Supreme Court has resulted in the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure, Mississippi Rules of Evidence, Mississippi Rules of Appellate Procedure, Mississippi Uniform Rules of Circuit and County Court Practice, Mississippi Uniform Chancery Court Rules, and Uniform Rules of Procedure for Justice Court. The Supreme Court is also the final arbiter of complaints regarding the conduct and performance of judges throughout the state.
The Supreme Court has nine sitting justices who serve eight-year terms following nonpartisan elections. Three justices are chosen from each of three Supreme Court districts—the Northern District, the Central District, and the Southern District. Justices must be at least thirty years of age, be state residents for at least five years, be practicing attorneys for five years prior to service, meet all voter eligibility requirements, and must not have been convicted of certain felonies.
- Michael H. Hoffheimer, Mississippi Law Journal (1995)
- James Robertson, in Encyclopedia of Mississippi Law, ed. Jeffrey Jackson and Mary Miller (2003)
- Leslie Southwick, Mississippi Law Journal (1996)