How a Case Moves Through the Court System
In the case outlines that follow, each party is represented by an attorney. However, this frequently is not the case, especially in limited jurisdiction courts.
People may represent themselves in court without an attorney, as long as they follow court rules. They often are called pro per or pro se litigants.
PLEASE NOTE: This guide is intended to give a general overview of the Arizona court system and its procedures. Not all cases proceed as outlined here.
Case Processing in Limited Jurisdiction Courts
Limited jurisdiction courts usually process criminal cases as follows.
- Initial Appearance - First appearance in court by a defendant. The defendant is advised of the charges. The judge appoints an attorney if the defendant cannot afford one.
- Arraignment - The defendant appears in court to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. (Note: Many limited jurisdiction courts combine the initial appearance and arraignment.)
- Trial - If the defendant pleads not guilty, a trial is held. The judge, or at the defendant ’s request, a jury, can hear evidence on the charges and find the defendant guilty or not guilty.
- Sentencing - If the defendant is found guilty, the court imposes the appropriate punishment (sentence).
- Appeals - Appeals from decisions of limited jurisdiction courts go to superior court. Appeals may be heard as a new trial (trial de novo), or the superior court judge may review records of trial proceedings, if records have been kept. Decisions in small claims court cannot be appealed.
Superior Court Case Processing
The two major types of court cases are criminal and civil. Trials in both criminal and civil cases are generally conducted the same way.
After all the evidence has been presented and the judge has explained the law related to the case to a jury, the jurors decide the facts in the case and render a verdict. If there is no jury, the judge makes a decision on the case.
Criminal cases involve the commission of acts that are prohibited by law and are punishable by probation, fines, imprisonment — even death. The attorney representing the state, county or municipal government that formally accuses an individual of committing a crime is the prosecutor. The party charged with the crime is the defendant.
Steps in a Criminal Case
1. Arrest - A person is arrested by a law enforcement officer who either observes a crime or has a warrant for arrest when probable cause exists that a person committed a crime. When a person is arrested, that person must be brought before a judge for an initial appearance within 24 hours of being arrested or must be released.
2. Initial Appearance - At the initial appearance, the judge determines the defendant’s name and address, informs the defendant of the charges and of the right to remain silent and to have an attorney. The judge appoints an attorney if the defendant cannot afford one, and sets the conditions for release from jail.
3. Preliminary Hearing - If a preliminary hearing is held, the judge hears evidence and testimony from witnesses called by the prosecuting attorney and the defendant’s attorney. If the judge determines there is enough evidence to believe the defendant probably committed the crime, the defendant is held for trial in superior court, and an arraignment date is set.
4. Arraignment - At the arraignment, the defendant enters a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest. If the defendant enters a not guilty plea, the judge will set a trial date. If the defendant enters a guilty plea or declares no contest to the charges, the judge will set a date to sentence the defendant for the crime.
Opening Statements - The defendant has the right to a trial either before a jury or a judge. When the court is ready for the trial to begin, opening statements are made by both sides. In a criminal case, the prosecuting attorney speaks first.
To begin, the attorney gives an overview of the facts to be presented. The opposing attorney may present the same type of opening comment or may reserve the opening statement until later in the trial when that side of the case begins. Either attorney may choose not to give an opening statement.
Witnesses - The prosecuting attorney will begin the case by calling witnesses and asking them questions. This is direct examination.
Witnesses in all trials take an oath or affirmation that what they say in court is true. All trial evidence, including testimony and physical evidence such as documents, weapons or articles of clothing, must be acceptable as defined by the Arizona Rules of Evidence before it can be admitted into evidence and shown to the jury. The judge decides what evidence and testimony is admissible under the rules.
In a criminal trial, the prosecuting attorney presents evidence and testimony of witnesses to try to prove the defendant committed the crime. The attorney for the defendant may present evidence and witnesses to show that the defendant did not commit the crime or to create a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt. The defendant is considered innocent of the crime charged until proven guilty.
When the prosecution’s side has completed its questioning of a witness, the defense is allowed to cross-examine the witness on any relevant matter.
After cross-examination, the attorney who originally called the witness may ask additional questions of the witness to clarify something touched on in the cross-examination. This is redirect examination. The judge may allow an opportunity for the opposing attorney to recross examine.
When the plaintiff or prosecution has called all the witnesses for its side of the case and presented all its evidence, that side rests its case.
At this point, the defendant’s attorney may ask the court to decide the case in the defendant’s favor because the plaintiff or prosecuting attorney did not present sufficient evidence to prove the case against the defendant. This is called a judgment of acquittal in a criminal case.
If the judge agrees that there is not enough evidence to rule against the defendant, the judge rules in favor of the defendant and the case ends.
If a judgment of acquittal is not requested, or if the request is denied, the defense may present evidence for its side of the case. The attorney for the defense often waits until this point in the trial to make an opening statement.
The defense may choose not to present evidence, as it is not required to do so. Remember, the defendant in a criminal case is not required to prove innocence. The prosecution is required to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
If the defense does present a case and call witnesses, the same rules and procedures that governed presentation of evidence by the prosecution now apply to evidence presented by the defense.
At the conclusion of the defendant’s case, the prosecutor may present additional information to respond to evidence offered by the defense. Following this, the defense is given another opportunity to present additional evidence on the defendant’s behalf.
Closing Arguments - When both sides have presented their evidence, each side may make closing arguments. Closing arguments are similar to opening statements. They provide an opportunity for the attorneys to address the judge or jury a final time. The plaintiff/prosecutor speaks first, usually summarizing the evidence that has been presented, and highlighting items most beneficial to the prosecution. The attorney for the defendant speaks next. The defense attorney will usually summarize the strongest points of the defendant’s case and point out flaws in the case presented by the prosecutor. The prosecutor then has one last opportunity to speak.
Instructing the Jury - After closing arguments in a jury trial, the judge reads instructions to the jurors explaining the law that applies to the case. Jury members are required to follow these instructions in reaching a verdict.
Jury Deliberations - The jury goes to a special jury room and elects a foreman to lead the discussion. Jurors must consider all the evidence, review the facts of the case, and reach a verdict. When the jury makes its decision, the court is called back into session.
Verdict - The foreman presents a written verdict to the judge, and either the judge or court clerk reads the jury’s verdict to the court. The court then enters a judgment based on the verdict, and the jury is released from duty. If found not guilty, the defendant in a criminal case is released immediately. If the defendant is found guilty, a date is set for sentencing.
Sentencing - A sentencing hearing is scheduled to determine the punishment a convicted defendant will receive. The judge hears testimony from the prosecution and the defense regarding the punishment that each side feels the convicted defendant should receive.
In Arizona, the Legislature has established a range of sentences for different crimes, and the judge must impose a sentence within the range outlined by law. The options may include probation, fines, imprisonment or a combination of these punishments. In some cases, the death penalty can be imposed.
Appeals - A convicted defendant may appeal. In a case where the death penalty is imposed, an automatic appeal is filed with the Supreme Court. In all other criminal cases, the appeal goes to the court of appeals.
Civil cases typically involve legal disagreements between individuals, businesses, corporations or partnerships. A person can also be involved in a civil lawsuit with a government entity such as a state, county or city.
Most civil cases involve disputes related to breach of contract, the collection of a debt, monetary compensation for personal injuries, property damage, or family law issues such as divorce.
The party suing in a civil case is the plaintiff, and the party being sued is the defendant.
Steps in Bringing a Civil Lawsuit:
- The plaintiff files a document (complaint) with the clerk of the court stating the reasons why the plaintiff is suing the defendant, and what action the plaintiff wants the court to take.
- The plaintiff must state whether the case is eligible for arbitration according to court rule.
- A copy of the complaint and a summons are delivered to (served on) the defendant.
- The defendant has a limited time (usually 20 days) to file a written answer admitting or denying the statements in the complaint.
- The plaintiff and the defendant exchange information about the case. This is called discovery.
- The case is tried before a jury or a judge.
- The judge makes a decision, or the jury gives its verdict, based on the testimony and other evidence presented during trial.
- The losing party may appeal the decision to the next higher level of the court.
Court of Appeals Case Processing
When an appeal is filed, the trial court sends the official case records to the court of appeals. When the records and attorneys’ written arguments (briefs) have been received by the court, the case is said to be at issue, and is assigned to a three judge panel for consideration. All cases filed in the court of appeals must be reviewed.
The brief of the person filing the appeal (the appellant) contains legal and factual arguments as to why the decision of the trial court should be reversed. The person against whom the appeal is made (the appellee) has the right to respond to these arguments.
An appellate court does not conduct trials. It reviews papers, exhibits and transcripts from the trial court. These items are the record on appeal, and are used to determine whether the trial court correctly followed the law in making its decision.
After they have reviewed the record, judges of the court of appeals may hear oral arguments from the attorneys before deciding the case and issuing an opinion. A majority vote (at least two out of three judges in agreement) decides the case.
Court of appeals judges have three main choices when making a decision:
- affirm (agree with) the trial court’s decision; or,
- reverse the decision (disagree); or,
- remand the case (send the case back to the trial court for further action or a new trial).
Supreme Court Case Processing
A petition for review is filed with the Supreme Court when a party wants the Supreme Court to hear a case.
After a petition for review has been filed, the record is transferred to the Supreme Court. After examining the petition for review and supporting materials, the court decides whether to grant or deny review of the appeal.
In almost all cases, the Supreme Court’s review is discretionary. This means the court may refuse to review the case. In that event, the last decision from a lower court is final.
When the Supreme Court agrees to review a decision, the justices study the record and the questions or points of law it raises. In most cases, the court will hear oral arguments from the attorneys involved in the appeal.
During oral argument, the attorney for the appellant (the party making the appeal) highlights and clarifies the client’s side of the case. Then the attorney for the appellee (the party responding to the appeal) presents the other side. The justices often question the attorneys about the issues and about the case law cited in support of their position.
After reviewing the case, the justices meet privately to deliberate and vote on how the case should be resolved. A majority vote decides the case, and the Chief Justice assigns a justice to write the court’s majority opinion.
Decisions of the court must be in writing. When issuing a written decision or opinion, the court may:
- affirm (agree with) the judgment of the lower court which means that judgment is final; or,
- reverse (disagree with) the decision of the lower court, meaning the Supreme Court’s decision must be carried out; and/or,
- remand the case (send it back to the trial court for further action and possible retrial).