“There is one transcendent advantage belonging to the province of the State governments, which alone suffices to place the matter in a clear and satisfactory light, — I mean the ordinary administration of criminal and civil justice.”
— Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers
It’s been a pretty good year for Alexander Hamilton, what with a blockbuster, Tony award-winning Broadway musical about him and all. But Hamilton’s newfound celebrity status aside, these words he wrote nearly 230 years ago, arguing that courts play a special role in preserving a sense of local rule, continue to ring true.
In fact, part of the beauty of the U.S. legal system is that it allows states and localities to determine not only their own laws (with oversight from the federal government) but also how to structure their own court systems. But for investigators, lawyers and others who rely on court searches to determine a subject’s legal history, this feature can add tremendous complexity, especially if the subject has lived in multiple jurisdictions that all structure their courts differently.
You’re probably already familiar with many of the most common types of courts. If you’ve ever gotten a speeding ticket, you may have had to show up to traffic court, for instance. If you’ve ever been charged with a crime or been sued, you may have had to go to criminal or civil court at the county or district level, depending on the nature and severity of the charge and/or the dollar amount involved. As investigators, we search such courts every day, looking for any information that helps shed light on a subject’s background. In some cases, however, things aren’t so straightforward.
What’s in a (Court’s) Name?
For example, some states try civil cases in a court of common pleas, a name with roots in the English court system and that dates all the way back to 1178, when King Henry II decided it might be a good idea to establish a forum for resolving disputes that are between individuals and have nothing to do with the crown.
Some states, including Delaware, Texas and Arizona, have Justice of the Peace Courts or Justice Courts, where civil cases below a certain dollar value are heard. Also, some towns in Delaware have an Alderman’s Court, a venue for deciding minor offenses such as misdemeanors and traffic violations.
But while jurisdictions may call courts that serve the same purpose by different names, some have courts that are more unique and that only deal with certain types of cases. For example, many jurisdictions have a mental health court to handle cases involving mentally ill or mentally disabled offenders and to help them get treatment.
Such courts are sometimes referred to as problem-solving courts and may be made up of a single judge or a small group of judges who hear(s) cases involving a specific societal issue. For instance, the increase in drug prosecutions in the 1980s and 1990s led some jurisdictions to create drug courts, which are similar to mental health courts but which handle only cases involving drug-addicted offenders.
Orphans, Aldermen and More
Other court types are even more idiosyncratic.
For example, each county in Maryland has an Orphans’ Court, though the name is a bit misleading. According to the Maryland Courts website, Lord Baltimore borrowed the idea from London’s Court for Widows and Orphans, which handled wills and estates at the time when Maryland was a British colony. The name is still used today for Maryland courts that handle probate cases and those involving guardianship of minors.
Similarly, every county in New York has a Surrogate’s Court, which hears cases involving the probate of wills and the administration of estates after a person’s death. The Surrogate’s Court also handles adoptions.
In 2008, Buffalo, New York became the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to establish a Veterans Treatment Court, similar to a mental health or drug court but designed specifically for cases involving veterans with these issues. Since then dozens of other jurisdictions have followed suit as the number of veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has grown.
Finally, proving once and for all that courts can be established for pretty much any purpose, Colorado and Montana have their own water courts to resolve water rights disputes, presided over by – you guessed it – water judges.
As I mentioned, court searches are an important piece of any investigation. Wading into unfamiliar territory, judicially speaking, and learning your way around can be a challenge, but it’s also part of what makes this job so fascinating. And who knows? Maybe one day I’ll get to research a case in Montana Water Court.