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Magistrate Courts

West Virginia’s magistrate courts decide small claims, misdemeanors, and other minor matters. The courts were created by the Judicial Reorganization Amendment of 1974 and replaced the justice of the peace system.

As amended, Article VIII, Sections 1 and 10 of the West Virginia Constitution direct the creation of magistrate courts, and Section 10 sets forth their basic framework. The section provides for magistrates to be elected by the voters of an entire county and to serve four-year terms. The legislature sets the qualifications for magistrates, except that Section 10 prohibits both the legislature and the court system from ever requiring that magistrates must be lawyers. The section also authorizes the legislature to provide for magistrates’ jurisdiction, except that it may not include felonies, civil cases involving more than an amount set by law, or any determination of title to real estate. Each magistrate has countywide jurisdiction, and in counties with more than one magistrate business between them must be allocated according to a method prescribed by the circuit’s judge or chief judge. Section 10 concludes by setting magistrate court juries at six persons and barring magistrates from receiving any pay for their services other than their legislatively-set salaries. Under the justice of the peace system, the justices were paid a fee for each case they handled; that practice is now expressly prohibited.

Magistrates must be at least 21 years of age, have a high school education or its equivalent, and be free of any felony or serious misdemeanor convictions. Magistrates must also complete basic instruction in law and procedures before and after taking office. The legislature periodically adjusts each county’s number of magistrates based on case loads. There are currently 160 magistrates in West Virginia, with at least two in every county and ten in the largest county, Kanawha.

State law currently sets the maximum amount in controversy for magistrate court civil jurisdiction at $10,000 and provides for magistrate court resolution of most landlord-tenant matters. The legislature has specifically barred magistrates from dealing with suits in equity, eminent domain cases, certain real estate matters, and specified tort actions, regardless of the amount in controversy. Magistrates’ criminal jurisdiction extends to all misdemeanors, preliminary examinations on warrants involving felonies, arrest warrants in all criminal matters, search and seizure warrants, and some probation matters. Magistrate courts also serve as the point of entry for criminal cases which are themselves outside the magistrate’s jurisdiction. An arrested person is entitled to a speedy probable cause hearing and a determination on bail. These matters are routinely handled in magistrate court.

Both civil and criminal appeals from magistrate court are made to the circuit court.

Written by Robert M. Bastress