The judiciary of Oregon works across two levels which comprise of 36 circuit courts spread across 27 judicial districts, a tax court, a Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court which is at the apex of the judicial hierarchy. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is the chief administrative officer of the system who supervises the functioning of the tribunals in the state, frames rules and appoints various personnel to office including the Chief Judge of the appellate court and the judges of trial courts.
The office of the Chief Justice also supervises the fiscal budget of the judiciary and adopts rules that help in framing the court procedures for all tribunals in OR. The State Court Administrator functions as the chief operating officer of the judicial machinery as he assists the Chief Justice in supervising and administering the various courts. The tribunals in the state include trial courts and appellate courts.
This category comprises of tribunals that hold general jurisdiction and tax courts which are limited jurisdiction tribunals that can only handle matters pertaining to taxation. Till 1998, a third type of tribunals called the district courts was also included in this category. However, they have since merged with the circuit courts. While circuit court judges are elected from within the judicial district they serve, tax court judges are appointed through a statewide election process.
Oregon has 36 counties and each of these has its own circuit court which means that often there are more than one circuit tribunals in some judicial districts. As of 2007, over 170 judges were presiding over cases in these tribunals. Circuit courts hear a range of criminal and civil matters including sessions held for the issue of Oregon arrest warrants.
These are records courts; this means that court dockets are maintained for the various cases heard. These records are used in any appeals made to higher courts. So, the appellate tribunals do not have to hold a fresh trial; they rely on the written and oral arguments held in the court dockets database. Circuit courts exercise authority in cases pertaining to:
- Distribution of assets
- Child custody
- Property disputes
- Allocation of assets as per decedents will or otherwise
- Juvenile justice
- Commitment of mentally ill patients to appropriate institutions
As far as criminal matters are concerned, the circuit courts of OR have the power to:
- Rule in pretrial and trial sessions held to deal with felonies and misdemeanors
- Carry out sentencing
- Impose death penalty
The Court of appeals and the Supreme Court are the two tribunals included in this judicial category. These courts rarely carry out regular functions like issuing active warrants and hearing criminal and civil cases. They only handle matters where the defendant/litigants are dissatisfied with the verdict of the lower court and appeal to the higher tribunal to review the decision.
The Court of Appeals
This is an intermediate appellate court which has the highest burden of all judicial entities in the state since it hears matters that are forwarded from all 36 circuit tribunals. The timely filing of an appeal will get the defense face time with this court. The first level appellate tribunal has the authority to:
- Hear all civil and criminal cases appealed from the circuit courts except for matters where capital punishment has been imposed and cases that are forwarded from the tax courts
- Review the actions of administrative agencies of the state
Judges of the Court of appeals convene in panels of 3 to hear the cases; however, the Chief Judge is not a member of any specific panel yet he may stand as a substitute for any other judge. Each month a certain number of cases are assigned to each panel by the Chief Justice.
The Oregon Supreme Court
This is the highest judicial authority in the state and the only tribunals to hold discretionary powers. This means that the court can choose the matters that are brought before it. Exceptions to this rule are cases where the death penalty has been invoked. In fact, such matters go directly from the circuit courts to the Supreme Court. Apart from these, cases from the tax courts as well as those involving labor law injunctions are also heard by the apex tribunal.