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How the courts work

Who's who in the court system?

Judge
An elected public official with authority to hear and decide cases in a court of law. Municipal court judges preside over cases originating in their own city involving only local laws and traffic offenses. Circuit court judges are trial court judges with jurisdiction over all kinds of cases. There is a circuit court in each county. Appellate judges review the records of trial court proceedings to interpret the law and correct errors made by the trial courts.

Court commissioner
A lawyer appointed by the circuit judges of a county who, as a judicial officer, exercises many of the functions of a judge, by conducting hearings and making findings and recommendations. Commissioner duties vary from county to county, but may include small claims, preliminary criminal proceedings, and other cases. Commissioners who hear family cases such as divorce, paternity and child support are sometimes referred to as family court commissioners.

Court reporter
A person who makes a word-for-word record of what is said in court and produces a written transcript of the proceedings upon request.

Clerk of court
An elected county official who receives legal pleadings, issues subpoenas and warrants, enters judgments and collects fines, and keeps records of court proceedings.

Clerk
A member of the clerk of courts staff, who provides in-court assistance to the judge. The clerk keeps track of documents, exhibits, scheduling, and keeps an abbreviated record of court proceedings.

Bailiff
A court officer who keeps order in the courtroom and has custody of the jury. The bailiff may be from the county sheriff's department.

Judicial assistant
An administrative assistant to a judge who provides clerical support.

Interpreter
An officer of the court who interprets court proceedings between English and another language. Interpreters may work on contract with the court or as county employees.

Register in probate
A county official appointed by the circuit judges who keeps records of court proceedings in probate cases and oversees the administration of estates. Probate cases include wills, trusts, guardianships, and mental health commitment hearings. This position is similar to the clerk of court and sometimes part of the clerk of courts office.

Juvenile clerk
A county official appointed by the circuit judges who keeps records of court proceedings in juvenile cases including juvenile delinquency, juveniles in need of protective services, and CHIPS (child abuse and neglect.) This position is usually combined with the Register in Probate, but sometimes is an employee of the clerk of courts office. Not all counties have a separately appointed juvenile clerk.

Sheriff
An elected county official responsible for law enforcement and public safety. The sheriff serves complaints, subpoenas, and warrants.

Attorney
A trained and licensed advocate, counsel, or agent who handles cases in the courts or manages the legal affairs of a client. Attorneys may be in private practice, work for the government, or work for a business or nonprofit group.

Prosecutor
A trial attorney representing the government in criminal case and forfeiture cases. The prosecutor decides who and when to prosecute. Depending on the offense, cases may be prosecuted by an assistant attorney general who works for the state, by a district attorney elected at the county level, by a municipal attorney for violations of city or county ordinances, or by a corporation counsel who works for the county.

Defense attorney
An attorney who represents the defendant, usually in a criminal case. A public defender is an attorney employed by the state whose work consists primarily of defending people who cannot afford a lawyer. Defense attorneys may also be private attorneys appointed by the court or paid by the defendant.

Probation officer
A state official who supervises a criminal defendant placed on probation. The probation officer monitors the progress of a probationer and takes action if the probationer violates the conditions of release.

Guardian ad litem (GAL)
An attorney appointed by the court to represent the best interests of a party or someone affected by the matter. A GAL is often appointed to represent the best interests of a child in child abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency, and divorce cases. A GAL may also be appointed to represent the best interests of adults and children in guardianships, protective placements, and other matters.

Coroner
An elected county official who inquires into the causes of any death which occurs under unusual circumstances.

Chief judge
A circuit court judge appointed by the supreme court to oversee the administrative activities of a judicial district and provide judicial leadership within the district.

District court administrator
A professional court administrator hired by the state to oversee the administrative, non-judicial activities of the courts in each judicial district. The DCA may be the person responsible for coordinating interpreter services within the district.

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