Chapter 3: Oregon State Courts

The Oregon Constitution established a supreme court and “such other courts as may from time to time be created by law.” The original Article VII of the constitution provided for circuit courts, county courts, justice of the peace courts and municipal courts. These provisions now have the status of statutes, a result of the adoption of amended Article VII of the constitution on November 8, 1910. This action allowed the legislature to create new courts, such as the tax court. The circuit court is vested with all judicial power, authority and jurisdiction not specially vested in another tribunal.

The geographical, civil and criminal jurisdiction of all trial courts of the state system have been defined by legislative action. Municipal courts are created by local charters, but are subject to legislative directives.

Separate courts of law and equity have never existed in Oregon although some procedural differences between suits and actions were maintained. In 1980, revised criminal proceedings abolished the last vestiges of procedural variations in state trial courts based on cases being historically “legal” or “equitable.” Because it is a constitutional right, the right to a jury trial was not affected by the adoption of the revised proceedings. The procedures unique to trying a case before a court or jury are preserved.

Generally, appeals may be made from decisions of all lower trial courts and tribunals to the appellate courts created by state law. In general, actions at law can be appealed only on issues of law, such as upon an allegedly erroneous ruling by the trial judge. In equity cases, findings of fact can be made by the appellate court based on a de novo review of the record. Trial court decisions on appeal may be affirmed, reversed, or modified and the cause can be remanded for a new trial in the court below. All courts of the Oregon state court system administer both criminal and civil law. Although municipal courts and administrative tribunals are not an integrated part of the Oregon judicial system, appeals from their decisions may be brought in the appropriate state courts.

The Judiciary:

The judiciary of the state court system consists of judges elected by non-partisan ballot for six-year terms. Judges of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals and the Tax Court are elected statewide. Circuit judges are elected within the judicial district in which they sit. When a judgeship is vacated between elections by retirement, death or resignation the vacancy is filled by gubernatorial appointment. Such positions are subject to election to full six-year terms at the next general election.


Oregon law provides that the county courts having juvenile and probate jurisdiction, the circuit courts, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court are courts of record (those with reported proceedings). Justice courts and municipal courts are not.

Municipal Court:

Municipal courts exist in most Oregon cities; they are established by city charter but controlled in some procedures by state law. The primary function of a municipal court is to decide cases that involve the violation of city ordinances. Such decisions may be appealed to the circuit court.

Municipal judges are appointed by city councils except in two municipalities, where they are elected by the city’s voters. The judges are not required by state law to be attorneys. In a number of cities a position of municipal judge is combined with that of city recorder or some other office.

Justice Court:

Justices of the peace operate the justice courts authorized by boards of county commissioners.

Justice court jurisdiction extends to most civil cases where the amount claimed does not exceed $2,500, except that this jurisdiction specifically excludes cases involving libel, slander, title to real property, criminal conversation, malicious prosecution or false imprisonment. Small claims departments exist in justice courts where actions for recovery of money or damages of $1,000 or less may be heard.

Criminal jurisdiction in justice courts extends to all misdemeanors, but defendants may elect to have their cases transferred to a district court or, in the absence of a district court, to the circuit court in the county of arrest. Justice court jurisdiction also includes traffic and other violations. Decisions of justice courts may be appealed to the circuit court.

Justices of the peace are not required to be attorneys and their courts exist in approximately 37 Oregon communities.

County Court:

In nine Oregon counties an elected county judge performs certain judicial functions in addition to general administrative duties shared with elected county commissioners. Probate, guardianship and conservatorship cases are heard by the county judge in Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Malheur, Sherman and Wheeler counties. Juvenile and adoption matters are handled by the county judge in Crook, Gilliam, Harney, Jefferson, Morrow, Sherman and Wheeler counties. County court judges are not required to be attorneys. Decisions of county courts may be appealed to the circuit court.

District Court:

In 1913 the Legislature established a state district court in every city with a population of 100,000 or more. This was the beginning of the district court, which replaced the justice of the peace court in Multnomah County. Since the original act, district courts have been established in 27 of the 36 Oregon counties.

District courts were abolished by the Oregon Legislature effective January 15, 1998. All former district courts are now circuit courts.

Circuit Court:

The circuit court is a court of record exercising all judicial power, authority and jurisdiction not vested in some other court. The court has jurisdiction in all civil and criminal cases, including the trial of felonies. Circuit courts also hear appeals by trial de novo from justice courts and county courts.

The circuit court operates in 20 judicial districts, each of which contains one or more Oregon counties. Each judicial district has one or more circuit judges elected for a six-year term. ORS 3.225 gives general authority, subject to approval of the chief justice, for circuit courts, by rule, to establish specialized subject-matter departments, such as for probate, domestic relations or juvenile cases. Any judge may serve in any department as assigned by the presiding judge of the court. In a few counties the county judge, rather than a circuit judge, hears the cases involving juvenile, adoption, probate, guardianship and conservatorship matters.

Tax Court:

The Oregon Tax Court has exclusive jurisdiction in personal income tax cases, corporate excise and income tax cases, property tax cases, inheritance and gift tax cases, and appeals from the supervisory orders of the State Department of Revenue in cases involving the local budget laws.

The Tax Court has a regular division and a small claims division. Limits for small claims actions are based on the amount of tax or property value involved. For example, an income taxpayer disputing a tax assessment or refund of $500 or less may appeal directly from the tax auditor of the Tax Court small claims division without first appealing to the department of revenue.

The Tax Court has statewide jurisdiction with headquarters and courtroom in Salem, but the court regularly sits in other counties of the state to be closer to where the taxpayer resides or where the property in question is located. Decisions may be appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court.

Land Use Board of Appeals:

Established as part of Oregon’s land-use laws, the Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) is the first state level of appeal of many city and county land use and zoning decisions. Cases brought before LUBA generally cannot be appealed to local circuit courts, and vice versa. The next step from LUBA is the Court of Appeals.

Court of Appeals:

Established in 1969, the Court of Appeals consists of 10 judges who are elected by statewide ballot for six-year terms. These judges elect a chief judge of the court from among themselves also for a six-year term.

The Court of Appeals has jurisdiction over all appeals from decisions of the circuit courts and over the review of decisions made by certain boards and administrative agencies of state government.

Parties to Court of Appeals cases may petition the Supreme Court to review Court of Appeals decisions. The Court of Appeals then decides whether to reconsider its decision and the Supreme Court decides whether to review the decisions of the Court of Appeals.

Supreme Court:

The Supreme Court is established by the state constitution and consists of seven judges elected for a term of six years who in turn elect one of their own to serve as chief justice for a six-year term.

The Supreme Court is a court of review and in its discretion decides which decisions of the Court of Appeals to review, usually selecting those with legal issues calling for significant interpretation of laws affecting many citizens or societal institutions as well as those involved in the case at hand.

In addition to the review of Court of Appeals decisions, the Supreme Court decides appeals from the Oregon Tax Court and is also empowered to assume original jurisdiction in mandamus, quo warranto and habeas corpus proceedings.

Oregon law confers administrative authority and supervision over the courts of the state on the chief justice. The Supreme Court has disciplinary authority over members of the judiciary and members of the Oregon State Bar, including the chief justice of the Court of Appeals and the presiding judges of the circuit and district courts. The principal assistant to the chief justice in carrying out court duties is the state court administrator.

The Supreme Court’s office and principal courtroom are in Salem, but occasionally the court sits elsewhere in Oregon.


Related posts:

  1. Chapter 2: Common Law

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