The Superior Court
The superior court is the state’s general jurisdiction court. It is a single entity with one or more locations in each county. Each county has at least one superior court judge. In counties with more than one superior court judge, the judges operate in numbered divisions.
Article VI § 14 of the Arizona Constitution provides the superior court with jurisdiction over:
• Cases and proceedings in which exclusive jurisdiction is not vested by law in another court.
• Equity cases that involve title to or possession of real property or the legality of any tax, assessment, toll, or municipal ordinance.
• Other cases in which the value of property in question is $1,000 or more, exclusive of interest and costs.
• Criminal cases amounting to a felony and misdemeanor cases not otherwise provided for by law.
• Forcible entry and detainer actions (evictions of renters).
• Proceedings in insolvency (but not bankruptcy, which is handled in federal court).
• Actions to prevent or stop nuisances.
• Matters of probate (wills and estates).
• Dissolution or annulment of marriages (divorces).
• Naturalization and the issuance of appropriate documents for these events.
• Special cases and proceedings not otherwise provided for and such other jurisdiction as may be provided by law.
Appellate Court Role of the Superior Court
The superior court acts as an appellate court for justice and municipal courts.
The superior court probation department supervises adults and juveniles on probation.
The Arizona constitution requires the superior court in each county to have at least one judge and permits one additional judge for every 30,000 county residents (or a fractional majority).
Superior court judge qualifications are governed by A.R.S. § 12-120.01 and require that a judge be:
• At least 30 years old;
• Of good moral character;
• Admitted to the practice of law in Arizona and an Arizona resident for the five years immediately before taking office, and
• A resident of the county in which he or she is elected.
Superior court judges serve four-year terms. In addition to judges, superior courts may employ commissioners, hearing officers, and judges pro tempore to assist in processing cases.
The Arizona Supreme Court designates a presiding judge for counties with two or more superior court judges. In single-judge counties, that judge holds the administrative authority.
The cost of salaries for superior court judges is split between the county and the state pursuant to A.R.S. § 12-128.*
*The FY 2019 Criminal Justice Budget Reconciliation Bill amended A.R.S § 12-128 to phase in state funding for Maricopa County judges at 25% in FY 2020 and 50% in FY 2021.
A county’s superior court presiding judge may appoint court commissioners to perform limited judicial duties if the county has at least three judges. These commissioners hear cases where an uncontested charge has been entered. A commissioner may also conduct the initial appearance of a defendant charged with a crime.
Clerks of Court and Court Administrators
Each county has a superior court clerk elected to a four-year term. The clerk maintains court case files; certifies documents; collects fees; issues summonses, subpoenas, and marriage licenses; and performs other duties required by law. For example, the clerk acts as an acceptance agency for passports. Some counties offer these services in more than one location. In some counties, the clerk also serves as the jury commissioner; in larger counties, the court administrator serves as the jury commissioner.
Most Arizona counties also have court administrators to assist the presiding judge with caseflow management, records management, financial management, human resources management and other administrative projects.
Counties with more than one superior court judge also have a special juvenile court. One or more superior court judges are assigned to hear all juvenile cases involving delinquency, incorrigibility, and dependency. Juvenile traffic cases may be heard by a court other than the juvenile court if the presiding juvenile court judge allows it.
The Tax Court, established in 1988, has jurisdiction over all questions of law and fact relating to disputes involving the imposition, assessment, or collection of Arizona taxes. Although the Tax Court is a department of the Superior Court in Maricopa County, it handles cases across the state.
A taxpayer may choose to use the small claims division of the Tax Court for certain cases. The small claims division hears disputes concerning the valuation or classification of class five property (a home) or where the full cash value of all real and personal property does not exceed $300,000. In addition, the small claims division judges hear all tax cases in which the amount of taxes, interest at the time of assessment, and penalties are less than $5,000. There is no right to appeal the decision of the Tax Court’s small claims division.
Arizona statutes require arbitration in most civil cases not exceeding $50,000. One to three arbitrators, who are attorneys appointed by the court, hear these cases. Hearings are conducted in an informal setting and manner that saves money and reduces the number of cases in trial courts. Arbitrators act as judges. They listen to both sides and make decisions based on the law. Arbitration decisions can be appealed, but usually are not. When a decision is appealed, the case is heard from the start (a trial de novo) in superior court.