The judicial branch of the state of Iowa is composed of a Supreme Court, a Court of Appeals, and a District Court. Within the District Court are four types of judicial officers: district judges, district associate judges, associate juvenile judges, and magistrates.

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court consists of eight* justices. A vacancy is filled by gubernatorial appointment from a list of three nominees provided by the State Judicial Nominating Commission. A year after appointment and every eight years thereafter, the justice stands for retention in office at a general election. Justices select one of their members as chief justice; the chief justice serves in that capacity until the expiration of his or her term.

* The number of justices will be reduced to 7 in 2000.

Court of Appeals

A nine-member Court of Appeals hears appellate cases diverted to them by the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals has subject matter jurisdiction to review civil actions and special civil proceedings whether at law or in equity, criminal actions, post-conviction remedy proceedings, and small claims actions. The judges elect one of their number as chief judge.

Judicial Districts

The State of Iowa is divided into eight judicial districts; each district is composed of 5 to 22 counties and 7 to 28 judges of general jurisdiction. For purposes of nomination and appointment of district judges, 5 of the 8 districts are divided into sub-districts for a total of 14 judicial election districts. In each district, a chief judge is appointed by the Supreme Court to supervise the work of all trial judges and magistrates. A district judge is appointed by the governor from a list of two nominees selected by the judicial election district nominating commission. Retention in office is subject to popular vote one year after appointment and every six years thereafter.

The jurisdiction of district associate judges is limited to civil actions for money judgments or replevin in which the amount in controversy does not exceed $10,000, criminal offenses less than a felony, and juvenile matters. They also have jurisdiction of felony violations involving the offense of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs (OWI). District associate judges serve four-year terms and must be admitted to the bar. Associate judges are appointed by the district court judges within the judicial election district from a list of three nominees submitted by the county judicial magistrate appointing commission. They stand for retention in office at the general election within the judicial election district.

Magistrates are appointed directly by the county magistrate appointing commissions; they serve four-year terms and are not required to be attorneys. Each of the 99 counties is allotted at least one part-time magistrate. In a county or combination of counties allotted three or more part-time magistrates, a majority of the district court judges in the judicial election district may vote to substitute and appoint one district associate judge in lieu of three part-time magistrates. Part-time magistrates are authorized to handle preliminary hearings, non-indictable or simple misdemeanors, search warrant proceedings, small claims, emergency hospitalization hearings, and various miscellaneous actions in which punishment does not exceed 30 days in jail or a $100 fine. Small claims include civil actions for: (1) money judgments or replevin where the amount in controversy is $4,000 or less, exclusive of interest and costs and (2) forcible entry and detainer where no question of title to property is involved.