Circuit courts are referred to as courts of general jurisdiction, meaning they have jurisdiction over a wide variety of matters. Many states have superior courts, which serve the same function as circuit courts. In most states, circuit courts are a step above district and municipal courts in the state court hierarchy. District court judges often preside over cases involving small claims and misdemeanor crimes, while circuit court judges typically hear cases involving more serious criminal and civil offenses. Typically, circuit court judges must practice law for a prescribed period of time before they can seek a seat on the bench.
Circuit court judges preside over all aspects of felony trials, from pretrial hearings to sentencing. They oversee the jury selection process, for grand juries and regular juries, decide the admissibility of evidence, consider whether attorney objections should be sustained or overruled, and instruct jurors concerning applicable law to consider during deliberation. Each state has sentencing guidelines to which a circuit court judge must adhere. Provided they stay within the sentencing guideline parameters, circuit court judges may set sentences for as long as they deem fit.
Typically, family courts are a division of circuit courts. In family court, circuit court judges preside over divorce cases. These cases often involve division of marital property, child custody and alimony. Circuit court judges who oversee these cases must apply state law when deciding the amount of property to which each spouse may be entitled. Regarding child custody, circuit court judges must consider what's in the best interest of children when deciding which spouse receives primary custody. If a couple was married for a significant amount of time, a circuit court judge may award alimony to the spouse in the economically disadvantageous position.
When an individual passes away, her estate must be divided among her heirs or the beneficiaries of her will. Circuit court judges in the probate court division declare wills valid if they conform to state law. During the probate process, judges oversee the distribution of a deceased person's estate by providing guidance to the executor whenever necessary. Furthermore, if an heir or beneficiary contests the validity of a relative's will, a probate court judge oversees all aspects of the will contest.
Additional Civil Matters
Circuit court judges preside over cases involving breach of contract, civil wrongs where monetary damages are awarded, and disputes over title to real property. These judges also issue injunctions and orders of wage garnishment. Moreover, circuit court judges make decisions concerning adoption and election contests. Often, circuit courts have concurrent jurisdiction with juvenile courts, meaning circuit court judges may sentence juveniles to correctional facilities and place minors in foster care.