How Does The North Carolina District Court Work? | Courtrecords.org
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How Does the North Carolina District Court Work?

North Carolina District Courts are trial courts. Divided into 41 districts across the state, District Courts sit in county seats. Where the North Carolina General Assembly authorizes it, District Courts may also preside in other towns and cities. The Chief District Court Judge manages the administration of each District Court. North Carolina District Courts have jurisdiction over cases such as:

  • Civil cases that involve between $10,000 and $25,000
  • Criminal cases
  • Juvenile cases
  • Magistrate matters

The District Court hears family-related cases such as divorce, alimony, child support, domestic violence protection, paternity, child custody, separation, and property settlement. Other civil topics heard by the District Court include involuntary mental health commitments, civil no-contact orders, and general claims that involve less than $25,000. Certain civil cases, such as child custody cases, are usually heard in the District Court without a jury. However, in other civil cases, parties to the case may request a jury hearing. In District Courts, where there are Small Claims divisions, the District Court may receive appeals from the Small Claims courts.

Municipal ordinance violations, non-jury infractions, and misdemeanors are some of the criminal matters within the District Court’s jurisdiction. Additionally, the court may hold preliminary hearings for other types of criminal cases in the District Court.

The District Court also hears cases of delinquency, neglect, abuse of parental rights termination, emancipation, foster care, and other juvenile matters.

As is the case with the North Carolina Superior Court, voters elect District Court judges. A District Court judge is required to live in the district where the judge is elected. Each North Carolina District Court judge serves a four-year term. Each district has a Chief District Court Judge appointed by the North Carolina Supreme Court’s Chief Justice. As part of the required administrative duties, the Chief District Court Judge creates court session schedules, assigns District Court judges to court sessions, and oversees each county’s magistrate.

To qualify as a North Carolina District Court judge, candidates must be attorneys under 72 years of age, the official judges’ retirement age in North Carolina. When there is a District Court Judge vacancy, the State Governor may appoint a candidate to fill the position for the rest of the former judge’s office term or until the next election.

Magistrates are independent District Court officers. Upon the Clerk of Superior Court’s nomination, Senior Resident Superior Court judges appoint magistrates. District Court judges supervise magistrates. Additionally, District Court judges determine the number of duty hours that magistrates have each week. Magistrates serve two-year first terms. Subsequent terms are up to four years long. To be eligible to be a North Carolina magistrate, candidates must reside in the county where appointed. Candidates must also have one of the following:

  • Eight years of work experience as a Superior Court Clerk
  • A four-year college degree
  • A two-year associate degree and four years of work experience in any public service work, especially those related to law enforcement or the court system

In North Carolina, magistrates do not have to be attorneys; however, magistrates who are attorneys may not be involved in private legal practices while serving the state.

The magistrate’s function is to provide impartial and independent reviews of public or law enforcement officers’ complaints. Magistrates are involved in both criminal and civil cases. For civil cases that involve up to $10,000, the magistrate must provide cost-effective and swift resolutions. Other duties of the magistrate in civil cases include:

  • Entering eviction or summary ejection orders
  • Perform civil marriages
  • Conduct civil driver’s license revocation hearings
  • Determine involuntary commitments
  • Hear small claims cases
  • Accept petitions and affidavits for involuntary commitment proceedings.
  • Acknowledge written contracts or separation agreements
  • Assign allowances to spouses and children

For criminal proceedings, a magistrate has the authority to:

  • Issue search and arrest warrants
  • Conduct initial appearances
  • Set conditions of release for non-capital offenses
  • Hear and enter judgments for cases of worthless checks involving less than $2,000
  • Provide punishment for direct criminal contempt
  • Take examinations and depositions before trials.
  • Issue subpoenas
  • Accept guilty pleas for Class 3 misdemeanors and certain infractions.

The magistrate may also:

  • Review vehicle towing
  • Review vehicle seizures in DWI and speeding cases
  • Process waiver dispositions for infractions and misdemeanors involving traffic, alcohol, boating, littering, parks, recreational areas, and wildlife.

Unlike judges, magistrates are not subject to the Judicial Standards Commission. However, magistrates take the same oath of office as judges, and magistrates are also subject to the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct. The state expects magistrates to carry out judicial duties with fairness and impartiality. The retirement age for North Carolina magistrates is 72. Also, the grounds for removing magistrates and judges are the same, although the processes involved may differ.

In North Carolina, the Superior Court Clerk is the administrative officer for both the Superior and District Court. Apart from record-keeping and other clerical functions, the court clerk has some judicial functions. The Superior Court Clerk is a probate judge, with exclusive jurisdiction over matters such as estate administration, including the appointment or removal of personal representatives; adoptions; foreclosures; incompetency proceedings; will probate; and condemnation of private lands for public use. Additionally, the Court Clerk receives court fees and fines and disburses them each year.

Superior Court Clerks are voted in elections and serve four-year terms. A Superior Court Clerk must live in the county where the Clerk is elected.

Parties interested in obtaining District Court Records may visit the Superior Court Clerk in the court or county court that heard the case.

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