North Carolina Judicial Branch


History of the Courts 1663 to 1818
NC State Supreme Court

 NC State Court of Appeals

NC State Superior Court

NC State Districts Courts

Office of Administrative Hearings

Judical Branch Boards & Commissions


North Carolina’s court system had many levels before the judicial branch underwent comprehensive reorganization in the late 1960s. Statewide, the N.C. Supreme Court had appellate jurisdiction, while the Superior Court had general trial jurisdiction. Hundreds of Recorder’s Courts, Domestic Relations Courts, Mayor’s Courts, County Courts, and Justice of the Peace Courts created by the General Assembly existed at the local level, almost every one individually structured to meet the specific needs of the towns and counties they served. Some of these local courts stayed in session on a nearly full-time basis; others convened for only an hour or two a week.

Full-time judges presided over a handful of the local courts, although most were not full-time. Some local courts had judges who had been trained as lawyers. Many, however, made do with lay judges who spent most of their time working in other careers. Salaries for judges and the overall administrative costs varied from court to court, sometimes differing even within the same county. In some instances, such as justices of the peace, court officials were compensated by the fees they exacted and they provided their own facilities.

As early as 1955, certain citizens recognized the need for professionalizing and streamlining the court system in North Carolina. At the suggestion of Governor Luther Hodges and Chief Justice M.V. Barnhill, the North Carolina Bar Association sponsored an in-depth study that ultimately resulted in the restructuring of the court system. Implementing the new structure, however, required amending Article IV of the State Constitution. In November, 1962, the citizens of North Carolina approved an amendment authorizing sweeping changes in the state’s judicial branch.

There was not enough time between the passage of the amendment and the convening of the 1963 General Assembly to prepare legislation to implement the changes. The General Assembly of 1963 created a Courts Commission and charged it with preparing the new legislation. The Courts Commission began its study soon after the adjournment of the session. The 1965 General Assembly approved legislation containing the commission’s recommendations for structuring a new court system. The constitutional amendment and resulting legislation created an Administrative Office of the Courts and established the framework for the District Court Division.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Supreme Court of North Carolina was one of the busiest in the country. Faced with an increasing number of cases dealing with its customary judicial business and a number of post-conviction appeals based on constitutional issues resulting from recent United States Supreme Court decisions, the court was becoming overburdened. This situation led the 1965 General Assembly to submit a proposed amendment to Article IV of the North Carolina Constitution. The new amendment authorized the creation of an intermediate court of appeals to relieve pressure on the N.C. Supreme Court by sharing the appellate caseload. Voters overwhelmingly approved this recommendation in the November, 1965, election.

The 1967 General Assembly enacted the necessary legislation establishing the North Carolina Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals became operational on October 1, 1967. The constitutional changes and legislation of the 1960s created the state’s current multi-level court system. The judicial branch now contains two trial divisions, the District Court Division and, above it, the Superior Court Division. The Appellate Division consists of two levels — the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. The Administrative Office of the Courts, which began operations in 1965, provides administrative support to the court system at all levels.

North Carolina’s counties still play an important role in keeping the wheels of justice turning throughout the state. Prior to the reorganization of the judicial branch in the 1960s, counties had extensive funding responsibility for the operations of various courts and court officials. The court reforms established a unified General Court of Justice and the state assumed responsibility for funding and administering virtually all court operations. Some county responsibilities, however, remain. Each county has the duty to adequately furnish and maintain a courthouse with at least one courtroom and related facilities. In certain municipalities where the General Assembly has authorized additional district court seats, individual municipalities provide court facilities.

The sheriff of each county, or one of the sheriff’s deputies, performs the duties of court bailiff. The bailiff opens and closes courts, carries out directions of the judge in maintaining order during court sessions, takes care of jurors when they are deliberating on a case and otherwise assists the judge. A court reporter records the proceedings in most of the cases tried in superior court. Jurors are drawn for each term of court by an independent three-member jury commission in each county. The commissions select names at random from their county’s voter registration records, the list of licensed drivers residing in the county and any other sources deemed reliable. Each name is given a number and the clerk of superior court draws prospective juror numbers at random from a box. Drawn numbers are matched to names held by the register of deeds and the sheriff summons jurors from the resulting list. No occupation or class of person is summarily excused from jury service. State law, in fact, specifically declares jury service an obligation of citizenship to be discharged by all qualified citizens. The chief district court judge hears all requests to be excused from jury service.

The State’s court system currently contains the judicial bodies shown above.

Click Here to view/download an Adobe PDF file of a small pamphlet, entitled "The North Carolina Judicial System," published in 2008 by the NC Courts.
Click Here to view/download and Adobe PDF file of a small pamphlet, entitled "Architectural Styles in North Carolina Courthouses," by Ava Barlowe, published in 2013.

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