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Vail Law: A quick look at Colorado’s court system

Rohn RobbinsVail, CO, Colorado

Where can you bring your grievances to be redressed? To court, of course, but to which court and how does one court differ from another? In this state, as in most, there are three main divisions of the state courts – small claims court, county court and district court. In other states the state court divisions are basically the same but are known by other names while the scheme of lower and upper state courts generally remains the same.Small claims courts are, as the name implies, for smaller matters. In Colorado, the jurisdictional maximum (that is the largest amount of money you can sue for and hope to recover) is $7,500. The beauty of small claims court lies in its simplicity. Lawyers are not allowed to appear before the court except with permission of the court, and the process is relatively swift and straightforward. There are no fancy pleadings, convoluted legal papers, or legalistic maneuvers. The parties come to court, present their evidence and a decision is rendered, either favorable or not.County courts encompass medium-sized matters and certain statutorily prescribed actions. Civil restraining orders are but one example. The jurisdictional maximum before the county court is $15,000 and the procedures to bring a matter to trial are more streamlined than in district court. Discovery (the formal process by which information is gathered in preparation for trial) is limited. In consideration of the amounts in dispute, rules apply which limit the costs which may reasonably be incurred in prosecuting or defending an action.Moving upDistrict court is the big kahuna. It comprises the forum within which major disputes or controversies are heard. As with county court, district court may be the site of certain actions which are statutorily prescribed to be heard before it. Actions for divorce are one example. Whether the dollars involved in divorce are large or small, the action must proceed before the district court.Appeals from the county court may be had before the district court. Appeals from district court go before the Colorado Court of Appeals, which concerns itself only with “error” in the lower courts. Error does not mean that the case is tried again. Rather, the Court of Appeals reviews the record that was made in the lower court and renders its decision based upon the fairness or correctness of the lower court’s decision.In some cases, an appeal may be taken to the Colorado Supreme Court, which may exercise discretion to decide which cases it will or will not hear. An appeal to the Supreme Court is via a “writ of certiorari,” a writ being an order from a court requiring the performance of a specified act, or giving authority to have it done. In this circumstance, the writ constitutes an order by the appellate court whether or not to hear an appeal. If the writ is denied, the court refuses to hear the appeal and, in effect, the judgment below stands unchanged. If the writ is granted, then it has the effect of ordering the lower court to certify the record and send it up to the higher court which has used its discretion to hear the appeal.From state to federalCertain disputes are heard within the federal system rather than before the state courts. The federal system is divided into circuits according to population and geography. Colorado is part of the 10th judicial circuit along with Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming. Within the circuits lie the federal district courts. The state of Colorado constitutes one judicial district. The federal district court judges are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.Federal disputes must, at a minimum, involve controversies exceeding the amount of $75,000. The disputants must also satisfy the requirement of complete diversity, that is the state of citizenship of the disputants may not be shared. The federal courts retain certain original jurisdiction as well, such as suits against the federal government, controversies involving certain constitutional rights or issues, and suits upon treaties of the United States.Much like the state system, the federal courts are constructed upon a hierarchy of appeal. The first level of appeal lies with the various federal Courts of Appeals and, higher still, the Unites States Supreme Court which is the ultimate court of appeal in all disputes.Keeping all this straight requires certain mental gymnastics and volumes of official publications to sort out and administer the intricacies. Despite appearances, it is a well-oiled system, one that has endured and which preserves recourse to the peaceable resolution of disputes we all, as citizens, enjoy.Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. His practice areas include: business & commercial transactions, real estate & development, homeowner’s associations, family law & divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECO TV18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at robbins@colorado.net.


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