Courts of General Jurisdiction
Many people wonder why particular cases are being heard by Judge Steven Cranfill of the Fifth Judicial District Court instead Circuit Judge Bruce Waters, Cody Municipal Judge Edward Webster, or Powell Municipal Judge James Allison. District courts are trial courts of general jurisdiction in Wyoming. The "jurisdiction" of a court refers to the kind of cases that can be heard by the court. District courts have general, unlimited jurisdiction over any case not specifically within the limited jurisdiction of the circuit or municipal courts, such as small claims cases or misdemeanors criminal cases.
The cases in courts of general jurisdiction include serious crimes and controversies with complex legal issues. District judges preside over criminal cases involving felony charges and civil cases involving large money claims, adoptions, divorce or child custody and support. They decide criminal and civil appeals from lower court decisions. In Wyoming, district court judges also preside in juvenile and probate court matters.
There are 17 district judges in Wyoming organized into nine judicial districts. District court is held in each of the 23 county seats so that many of the judges must regularly travel to other counties within their district to hear the cases that arise there. In addition, district judges travel to other districts when necessary to assist another judge with the workload or particular cases in that district.
District judges are chosen like circuit court judges and justices of the supreme court. They serve six-year terms. The governor appoints a judge from a list of three qualified persons submitted by the Judicial Nominating Commission. After serving on the court for one year, the new judge stands for retention in office on a ballot at the next general election in only the counties located in the judge’s particular district. If a majority vote for retention, the judge serves the remainder of the term and may run for retention in succeeding terms by means of a nonpartisan retention ballot. A district judge must be an attorney at least 28 years old who is a United States citizen and a resident of Wyoming for at least two years. State court judges must retire at the age of 70.
Each district judge hires an official court reporter. The primary duties of the reporter are to keep a verbatim record of court proceedings and to prepare a written transcript of proceedings when requested. Reporters are trained to use a specialized machine called a Stenograph to type a verbatim record of everything said in court. A court reporter must always be present at criminal trials and juvenile court hearings as well as certain other important court proceedings. The court reporter may also serve as the district judge's assistant in administrative duties; however, each district judge also has an administrative assistant who manages the judge’s office including maintaining the court calendar and setting hearings in cases.
Some district judges have full-time or part-time law clerks. Law clerks are simply a staff attorney in the court and assist the judges in legal research and other duties the judges may assign to them. Law clerks must have a law degree and are often recent law school graduates or new attorneys. As the district court’s staff attorney, a full-time law clerk may not give legal advice to anyone except the district judges and their staffs.
A law clerk is the court’s staff attorney and should not be confused with the clerk of district court. The clerk of district court is the record keeper of the court and is an elected official of the county. Although the clerk does not work for the district judge, the clerk’s duties directly assist the district court and every county maintains a clerk of court's office for its county’s district court. The clerk maintains case files, which include the written records of a case–complaint, answers, pleadings, orders, judgment, and written opinion, if any.
At any one point in time in Park County there are literally hundreds of cases pending before the district court. In one day’s work the district judge might deal with matters in dozens of cases either in person or through papers filed with the court. A district judge in one morning may hear cases ranging from a criminal drug offense to a personal injury lawsuit and then spend the afternoon deciding matters in a half dozen different cases on issues as diverse as collection of unpaid child support, inheritance from an estate, contract enforcement, search warrants, divorce and an adoption of a new baby.