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Judicial Branch » Kansas District Courts

District Courts

District courts are the trial courts of Kansas, with general original jurisdiction over all civil and criminal cases, including divorce and domestic relations, damage suits, probate and administration of estates, guardianships, conservatorships, care of the mentally ill, juvenile matters and small claims. It is here that the criminal and civil jury trials are held.

Organization and Administration

District courts are created by the Kansas Constitution, which provides that the state be divided into judicial districts and that each judicial district have at least one district judge. Currently there are 31 judicial districts, which vary in size from one to many counties and vary in the number of judges within each district. Kansas statutes require that each county have a district court with at least one judge who is a resident of and has his or her principal office in that county. Each district court also is required to have an office of the clerk of the court where cases may be filed.

Rice County Courthouse image
The Rice County Courthouse in Lyons houses the Rice County district court and is part of the 20th judicial district in Kansas.
Photo by Keith Stokes

The state also is divided into six judicial departments, each of which includes several judicial districts. One justice of the Kansas Supreme Court serves as departmental justice over each department. The departmental justice may assign district judges from one judicial district to another.

Each judicial district has a chief judge who, in addition to his or her judicial responsibilities, has general control over the assignment of cases within the district and general supervisory authority over the clerical and administrative functions of the court. Prior to legislation passed in 2014, the Kansas Supreme Court designated the chief judge. Effective July 1, 2016, each district court elects its own chief judge, such procedures for election to be determined by the district court judges.

Judges of the District Court

There are two types of judges of the district court – district judges and district magistrate judges. District judges exercise the full power and authority of the court. District magistrate judges have limited jurisdiction and preside over probate and juvenile matters, misdemeanor trials, preliminary examinations in felony and misdemeanor cases, certain civil actions and uncontested actions of divorce.

Any person who is elected, retained in office or appointed as a district judge or district magistrate judge must meet the following statutory requirements:

  • A district judge must be a lawyer admitted to practice law in Kansas; must be a resident of the judicial district for which elected or appointed to serve at the time of taking the oath of office and maintain residency in the judicial district while holding office; and, for a period of at least five years, must have engaged in the active practice of law as a lawyer, judge of a court of record or any court in this state, full-time teacher of law in an accredited law school, or any combination thereof. In addition, the Kansas Constitution requires a district court judge to be at least 30 years old.
  • A district magistrate judge must be a graduate of a high school or secondary school or equivalent; must be a resident of the county for which elected or appointed to serve at the time of taking the oath of office and maintain residency in the county while holding office; and, if not a lawyer admitted to practice law in Kansas, be certified by the Kansas Supreme Court as qualified to serve as a district magistrate judge.

The decisions of a district magistrate judge who is not a licensed attorney may be appealed within the district court to a district judge. Decisions from a district magistrate judge who is an attorney licensed in Kansas are appealed to the Kansas Court of Appeals or, in some instances, to the Kansas Supreme Court. The district court has appellate jurisdiction over municipal courts and some administrative agencies. Appeals from the district court may be taken to the Kansas Court of Appeals or, in some cases, to the Kansas Supreme Court.

Selection of Judges

Before the court system overhaul in the 1970s, district judges were selected by partisan election by the voters within their respective judicial district. The new judicial article of the Kansas Constitution adopted in 1972 created a nonpartisan method for selection of district court judges, and the majority of districts now use this method. However, the method was adopted by voters on a local option basis, and several districts have chosen, by popular vote, to continue to elect their judges by a partisan election process. Judges serve four-year terms regardless of the method of selection.

With the merit selection method, when there is a vacancy in a district judgeship a judicial nominating commission – made up of lawyers and nonlawyers who live in the district – interviews candidates and nominates two or three candidates to the governor, who appoints one to fill the vacancy. When there is a vacancy in a district magistrate judgeship, the district judicial nominating commission selects a candidate to fill the vacancy. An appointed judge must stand for retention election within the district after one year in office. If the majority of votes cast favor retention, the judge then serves a full four-year term and is subject to a retention vote just before the conclusion of each four-year term.

Support Services

To help manage the court’s clerical and administrative functions, the district’s chief judge appoints a court clerk in each county to be the official custodian of court records. The clerk’s other duties include case filing; processing subpoenas, summonses and warrants; collecting various fees; and issuing post-judgment orders.

Each judicial district also has a court services division in which court services officers supervise the probation of adult and juvenile offenders, work with children in need of care, conduct home studies or mediations for divorce and child custody issues, and research and write pre-sentence investigation reports.

The chief judge may appoint either a chief clerk or a court administrator to help with administrative functions of the court, like jury management, personnel administration and budget preparation. The chief judge also is authorized to appoint bailiffs, court reporters, secretaries, and other clerical and nonjudicial personnel as needed.