This month’s column topic comes at the request of my clerks who get a variety of questions about courts.
In previous editions, I and other judges have covered a variety of courts such as municipal, probate, magistrate, metropolitan court in Albuquerque, and district courts. In this edition, I am taking on the same topic, but from a slightly different perspective and as a guide.
Courts fall into three broad categories: limited jurisdiction, general jurisdiction and appellate courts.
First off, what is jurisdiction? Paraphrasing Black’s Law Dictionary, jurisdiction is the court’s power to decide a case or issue a decree within a geographic area.”
First to the geography point. Courts have specified geographic boundaries as part of their defined jurisdiction. A municipal court, to its respective village, town or city. A county court to a specific county. A district court, to a specified district, and so on.
In terms of limited jurisdiction courts, these are courts with jurisdiction limited to specific case types or have other limitations placed on them by constitutional or statutory authority.
Magistrate and Metropolitan Courts. The New Mexico Constitution provides for the creation of magistrate and metropolitan Courts as courts that exercise limited original jurisdiction. State statute then addresses the specifics of both establishment and organization of these courts.
Magistrate and metropolitan courts are state courts with jurisdiction to decide traffic and misdemeanor cases and have a civil jurisdiction of up to $10,000. Both courts also decide county code violations.
Felony cases are typically filed in magistrate and metropolitan courts for preliminary matters. If the felony case moves forward to a trial, the case is transferred to the respective district court for adjudication. If a person is charged by a grand jury indictment, the case is filed in district court.
Valencia County Magistrate Court is comprised of three divisions. Division I and III are in Los Lunas and Division II is in Belen. Only Bernalillo County has a metropolitan court and it is in Albuquerque.
County Probate Courts. The New Mexico Constitution directly establishes a probate court in each county with state statute setting its limited jurisdiction. The probate court handles uncontested probate issues. If probate is disputed in any way, the matter would be transferred to the respective district court. The Valencia County Probate Court is in the county offices in Los Lunas.
Municipal Courts. State statute provides the jurisdiction for municipal court, which reads, “Each municipal court has jurisdiction over all offenses and complaints under ordinances of the municipality.”
There are five municipal courts in Valencia County located in Belen, Bosque Farms, Los Lunas, Peralta and Rio Communities.
District Courts. Black’s Law Dictionary defines general jurisdiction as having the “authority to hear a wide range of cases, civil or criminal, that arise within its geographic area.”
District court jurisdiction includes, but is not limited to, the full adjudication of adult and juvenile criminal cases, and civil cases that range from divorce to child custody, foreclosures to protection orders, water law cases and so much more.
District courts also serve as a sort of appellate court for limited jurisdiction courts as well as hearing administrative appeals for state boards and commissions.
In New Mexico, we have 13 judicial districts ranging from single county districts to as many as four counties. Valencia County is part of the 13th Judicial District comprised of Cibola, Sandoval and Valencia counties. The district court in Valencia is in Los Lunas.
Appellate Courts. As the name implies, appellate courts hear appeals from lower courts.
The New Mexico Constitution provides for both a Supreme Court and a Court of Appeals. Like other courts, state statutes address the establishment and organization of these courts.
The New Mexico Court of Appeals has an appellate jurisdiction defined by statute and is comprised of 10 judges. The New Mexico Court of Appeals has a court in both Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
The New Mexico Supreme Court is comprised of five Supreme Court justices, with one of the five selected to serve as the chief justice. The New Mexico Supreme Court is in Santa Fe.
Federal Courts. Federal courts also have limited, general and appellate courts.
The United States District Court of New Mexico has courts in Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Santa Fe and Roswell. The court is comprised of both limited jurisdiction federal magistrates and federal district court judges.
The United States courts of appeals are comprised of 13 circuit courts. New Mexico is in the 10th Circuit. The 10th Circuit Court also includes the Districts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming.
The United States Supreme Court is comprised of nine Supreme Court Justices, with one of the nine serving as the Chief Justice.
Since this topic came from my clerks, I close with the following: While judges may be the familiar face of the court, the clerks of the court are who keep it running. Their work is greatly appreciated!
(Magistrate Judge John R. Chavez is the magistrate in Belen. He is a native of Valencia County and is a retired U.S. Army colonel.)
Judge John Chavez, guest columnist
Magistrate Judge John R. Chavez is the magistrate in Belen. He is a native of Valencia County and is a retired U.S. Army colonel.