The keystone of a criminal case is a trial at which a judge or jury weigh evidence and witness testimony to determine what facts can be proven about a case and whether the facts can prove the defendant’s guilt. There are three primary types of trial courts in Michigan: district, circuit and probate. As mentioned, trial court judges are compensated by the state’s judiciary budget, but costs of other court personnel and most other operations are funded by the municipality, county or group of counties that fall under the court’s jurisdiction.
Michigan trial courts may opt to set aside resources or apply for state or federal grants to create specialty dockets for cases involving specific kinds of issues. Known collectively as “problem-solving courts,” these programs provide training, education, evaluation, treatment and monitoring in a variety of areas. As of 2017, Michigan had 185 such specialty courts focusing on sobriety, drug treatment, veterans’ affairs, mental health and probation.
The goals of problem-solving courts are to provide accountability and recovery services to offenders to help them avoid incarceration. They operate on a team-based model that provides the offender with guidance and accountability from a group that may include judges, defense attorneys, probation officers, police officers or private treatment providers. These courts aim to reduce recidivism rates, substance abuse and unemployment among participants.
The Michigan Legislature established district courts in 1968 to hear some civil and minor criminal matters. These courts replaced many of the municipal courts which had previously been serving Michigan cities.[a] Today, there are about 100 district courts in Michigan, overseen by judges who are elected to six-year terms. Their jurisdiction is largely determined geographically and set in statute, with many district courts serving a single county. District courts handle civil cases with claims up to $25,000, misdemeanor criminal cases, traffic violations and tickets and felony pretrial proceedings. The Legislature added a Small Claims Division to district courts, which handles minor disputes that can be resolved without lawyers, a jury, formal rules of procedure and evidence, or the ability to appeal to a higher court.
There are 57 circuit courts in Michigan, established by the Michigan Constitution and overseen by judges who are elected to six-year terms. Their geographic jurisdiction is determined by the Michigan Supreme Court and usually comprises a county or two.
Circuit courts handle civil cases with $25,000 or more in claims, felony criminal cases, and appeals from district courts and administrative tribunals. In 1998, the Legislature added the Family Division to the circuit court, which handles matters that had previously been divided between circuit and probate courts, such as issues concerning divorce, paternity, adoptions and juvenile offenses.
There are 78 probate courts in Michigan — one per county, except where sparsely populated counties have consolidated their courts. These courts are established by the Michigan Constitution, and probate judges are elected to six-year terms. Probate courts hear matters related to wills, trusts, and estates, and have the power to appoint guardians and require services for vulnerable individuals such as children, those suffering from mental illness or physical disability.
[a] Only a handful of cities have retained their municipal courts, including Grosse Pointe, Grosse Pointe Farms, Grosse Pointe Park, Grosse Pointe Shores and Grosse Pointe Woods. “Michigan Trial Courts,” in Michigan Manual 2009-2010 (Michigan State Court Adminstrative Office, 2009), V-25-V-26, https://perma.cc/8CJD-UHC3.