Differences Between Courts in Washington State

In the state of Washington, we hold nonpartisan judicial elections. That means we’re going to be making a lot of judicial endorsements at our upcoming endorsements meeting. But for those of us without a J.D., the ins-and-outs of each judicial office might just be a little hard to grasp. Luckily, Aaron Corn is here to help by delineating just what each type of judge does.

Seattle Municipal Court handles all misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor crimes, civil infractions, and other offenses authorized under the Seattle Municipal Code and certain Revised Code of Washington Statutes that occur within the boundaries of the city of Seattle. These courts cannot handle civil lawsuits except for city enforcement actions. Municipal court judges are responsible for:

  • Misdemeanors: Crimes where the maximum sentence is 90 days in jail and $1,000 fine.
  • Gross Misdemeanors: Crimes that carry a maximum sentence of 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine, including offenses such as driving under the influence (DUI), domestic violence, theft, and trespass.
  • Infractions: Acts that are prohibited by law but are not legally defined as a crime like parking tickets and traffic or non-traffic infractions.
  • Civil Offenses: Filed with the court when the City of Seattle seeks enforcement of its fire code, housing, and other City ordinance violations.

The District Court is responsible for the following types of actions, generally occurring where a municipal court does not have jurisdiction either because it falls outside of the municipal area, in the case of infractions or misdemeanor criminal cases, or because the action is not handled by the municipal court, such as civil litigation matters:

  • Civil litigation matters up to $100,000 per claimant
  • Small claims matters up to $5,000
  • Nuisance violations
  • False alarm hearings
  • Vehicle tow and impound hearings
  • Anti-harassment orders
  • Domestic violence protection orders
  • Name changes
  • Infractions (traffic, non-traffic and parking)
  • Misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor criminal cases
  • Felony expedited cases
  • Felony preliminary hearings
  • Search warrants
  • Garnishments and other supplemental proceedings
  • Lien foreclosure and forfeiture hearings

King County Superior Court acts as both a trial court and also handles some appeals. The Superior Court handles appeals from district and municipal courts. As a trial court, it has responsibility for the following:

  • Civil matters involving more than $300, unlawful detainers, and injunctions;
  • Felony criminal cases;
  • Misdemeanor criminal cases not otherwise provided for by law;
  • Family law, including dissolutions, child support, adoptions, parentage, and domestic-violence protection matters;
  • Probate and guardianship matters;
  • Juvenile offender matters;
  • Juvenile dependencies, including abused and neglected children, children in need of services, at-risk youth, and truancies;
  • Mental illness and involuntary commitment matters.

Washington State Court of Appeals handles appeals from Superior Courts. In Washington, the Court of Appeals is non-discretionary, meaning that it must accept all appeals from superior courts. The Court of Appeals has authority to reverse (overrule), remand (send back to the lower court), modify, or affirm the decision of the lower court. The court decides each case after reviewing the transcript of the record in the superior court and considering the arguments of the parties.

Washington Supreme Court is the final court of appeals in Washington State. At its discretion, it can choose to hear an appeal from a decision of the Court of Appeals. In the Supreme Court, no witnesses are called or other evidence taken. Rather, the Court hears only legal issues, and decides the case based on the factual record developed in the trial court. In a case already decided by the Court of Appeals, the Court will generally grant review only if it involves a question which has given rise to conflicting appellate court decisions, an important constitutional question, or a question of substantial public importance.

So on Monday when you’re thinking about who you’re endorsing – be sure to hold all of this in mind!

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