Civil procedure is the set of rules and procedures which governs the actions of all parties involved in a civil court action. It is not the law, but the means by which substantive legal issues are decided in the courts. In Arizona, these rules are promulgated by the Arizona Supreme Court. For more in-depth information on these rules and for the text of the current rules, see Civil Trial Practice and Arizona Court Rules respectively, listed under the RESOURCES tab.
This guide is written primarily as an aid to the pro se patron who is encountering the complexity of the courts system for the first time, or for those who may be represented by an attorney but simply want to know more about the structure and process of civil litigation in Arizona courts.
There are both state and federal level courts operating within Arizona. Generally, cases dealing with interpretations or violations of state and local laws, or matters between citizens or institutions of Arizona, are heard in state courts. Federal courts hear issues which involve federal laws and issues (e.g. immigration, civil rights, issues involving non-U.S. citizens or foreign governments).
The state courts system in Arizona consists of five distinct jurisdictions: City Court, Justice Court, Superior Court, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court. Whether a matter is heard in one court or another depends upon a variety of factors, including whether state or local laws are at issue, the dollar amount of the claim, and whether the matter is being appealed.
City Court (also known as Municipal Court or Magistrates Court) and Justice Court handle a limited range of criminal and civil matters, and are known as inferior courts or courts of limited jurisdiction. Justice Court has a Small Claims Division for civil matters which involve dollar amounts under a certain limit. (For a detailed description of these two courts and their specific functions and limitations, please see Civil Trial Practice by Charles Marshall Smith listed in the resources section below. Also consult the web sites for both Tucson City Court and Pima County Justice Courts.
Superior Court is the trial court for many civil and criminal matters in Arizona and is known as a court of general jurisdiction. It is also called a court of record, meaning that its decisions are preserved as part of the public record. (This does not mean they are published. You will not find them in case reporter volumes in the law library. To access records of these proceedings, you can do a record search on the website of the City Clerk or contact that office.Every county in Arizona has at least one judge who sits on the Superior Court bench. The Superior Court also functions as an appellate level court for judgments arising from inferior courts.
The Court of Appeals for Arizona consists of two divisions, one serving the northern and central counties (Division One), and one for southern Arizona counties (Division Two). The Court of Appeals provides for review of all civil judgments arising from Superior Court and for all criminal judgments except those where the death sentence has been imposed (those judgments are automatically appealed directly to the Supreme Court).
The Supreme Court of Arizona is the court of final review of lower court decisions and is also the rule-making body for all Arizona courts. It consists of five members including a chief justice and a vice-chief justice. Sometimes, the entire bench decides a case (en banc), but only three members are needed for a decision to be made.
There are also federal courts operating within Arizona. Federal district court, with divisions in Phoenix, Prescott, and Tucson, is the trial court for all issues over which the federal government has jurisdiction. Bankruptcy court is a specialized federal court hearing cases in Arizona and other states.
Opinions from the Arizona Court of Appeals and Arizona Supreme Court are reported in the Arizona Reports. These are located in the Arizona Collection of the Law Library. This set is a chronological arrangement of cases. The only way to find a case on a particular subject is to use the Arizona Digest, shelved nearby. The Descriptive Word Index in volumes 26, 27, & 28, allow you to search by subject. Judgments from the lower courts are not published.