Kentucky District Courts

This column is the first in a four-part series on Kentucky’s court system.

To some, Kentucky’s court system may seem like a giant maze. They know there is a beginning and an end, but how cases flow through the system is somewhat confusing. The next four columns will discuss Kentucky’s courts and their structures.

Kentucky’s court system was transformed in 1975, making it one of the nation’s most innovative. The restructuring unified the system for both court and administration operations; it also created the Court of Justice as an independent branch of government, separate from the executive and legislative branches, and also separate from county and city governments.

In broad terms, Kentucky has two trial levels: district and circuit courts, both of which hear cases for the first time and have juries present. There also are two appellate levels: the intermediate Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, which hear cases that have already been tried in lower courts.

This column will focus on district court, which is the point of entry for most people in Kentucky’s judicial system.

District court, which is held every county in Kentucky, is the busiest of all courts. In fiscal year 2006, more than 813,000 cases were filed in district courts across Kentucky
Traffic offenses make up the majority of cases. Traffic offenses include speeding, passing stopped school bus, driving overweight trucks, failure to have liability insurance, inadequate vehicle registration, DUIs, driving recklessly, failure to stop at traffic lights and stop signs, and other driving citations.

Other cases heard in district court include drug offenses (unless the district has a drug court), theft (less than $300), cold checks (theft by deception), domestic violence, city and county ordinances violations, and Class A misdemeanors. In Class A misdemeanors, the offender may receive a fine of up to $500 and up to 12 months in jail if convicted.

In addition to adult criminal cases, juvenile matters are handled in district court, or in juvenile court, which is a division of district court. Cases involving children under age 18 are heard in this court, including delinquency, dependency, neglect and abuse, truancy, and misdemeanors and felonies. More serious felonies are heard in circuit court.

In addition to juvenile matters and criminal cases, district court hears cases in regard to small claims, guardianship, and voluntary and involuntary commitments.

With the exception of civil matters, county attorneys handle virtually all cases in district court. District judges hear all cases in district court.

District court has six-member juries. In order to render a verdict, the jury must reach a unanimous decision in criminal cases. In civil cases, a five-sixths majority is required.