Understanding Missouri Courts

People may represent themselves in Missouri courts without an attorney as long as they follow court rules. They often are called pro se or self-represented litigants.

Missouri Circuit CourtJurisdiction  Circuit Court JudgesJudicial QualificationsJudicial Selection ProcessPresiding Judge |
PJ Assignment Authority  | Court Offices | Case Processing | Civil Cases | Criminal CasesSt. Louis Ordinances | St. Louis County  Wide Ordinances | Other Missouri Municipal Ordinances | Missouri State Law | Federal LawHow a Case Moves Through the Court System |


Article V, the judicial article of the Constitution of Missouri, was approved by Missouri voters in 1976 and implemented by the 1978 Court Reform and Revision Act which took effect January 2, 1979. The new judicial article reorganizes all former courts of limited jurisdiction into one level of trial courts as part of Missouri’s unified judicial system. Article V, Section 1 of Missouri’s Constitution established Missouri circuit courts as the only trial court in the state with jurisdiction over all criminal and civil cases. Section 14 of Article V also permits the circuit courts to issue and determine original remedial writs.

Missouri’s single trial court, the circuit courts, absorbed the functions of the previously limited jurisdiction courts: magistrate, probate, municipal, common plea, and the St. Louis Court of Criminal Corrections. To perform these functions, the new judicial article provided for the following divisions within the circuit courts:

  • Circuit Divisions.
  • Probate Divisions.
  • Associate Circuit Divisions.
  • Juvenile Divisions.
  • Municipal Divisions.
  • Other divisions as established by local court rule.

The judicial article dictates that the State of Missouri be divided into convenient judicial circuits of contiguous counties. Currently, Missouri is divided into 45 judicial circuits comprised of from one to five counties.


Within the divisions of the circuit courts there are three levels of jurisdiction: the circuit, the associate circuit, and the municipal levels.

The circuit level has original jurisdiction over all cases whether criminal or civil. Circuit judges may hear and determine all cases and matters within the jurisdiction of the circuit courts.

Associate circuit judges may hear civil matters that do not exceed $25,000, misdemeanor or infraction matters, and felony matters prior to the filing of the information. Associate circuit judges may also hear municipal ordinance violations in municipalities that have fewer than 400,000 people and have no municipal judge, juvenile matters in counties with fewer than 70,000 people, and small claims matters as prescribed in Chapter 482 RSMo. In probate matters, associate circuit judges have general equitable jurisdiction. By assignment by the presiding judge, or local court rule, an associate circuit judge may hear any matter pending in the circuit court.

Finally, Article V, Section 6 of the Missouri Constitution provides that an associate circuit judge is eligible to sit temporarily on any court. This provision allows associate circuit judges to hear any case or class of cases upon assignment by the Supreme Court.

The third jurisdictional level of the circuit courts, the municipal division, hears only municipal ordinance violations. Under the new article, the governing body of any municipality with a population of less than 400,000 may elect to have an associate circuit judge hear municipal matters in the first instance.

Judges of the Circuit Courts

The Constitution of the State of Missouri authorizes three types of judges in Missouri’s circuit courts – circuit judges, associate circuit judges, and municipal judges.

On January 2, 1979, the new judicial article established as circuit judges those judges who were circuit judges prior to that date, probate judges in counties with more than 65,000 people, and judges of the former St. Louis Court of Criminal Corrections. Article V, Section 15 of the Missouri Constitution requires there be at least one circuit judge in each of Missouri’s 45 judicial circuits. The number of circuit judges is determined by the general assembly.

The second type of judge established by Missouri’s Constitution is the associate circuit judge. On January 2, 1979, former magistrate judges and probate ex-officio magistrate judges in counties with fewer that 65,000 inhabitants became associate circuit judges. The new judicial article mandates there be at least one resident associate circuit judge in each county and that the number of associate circuit judges be authorized according to the county populations.

The third type of judge in Missouri’s circuit court system is the municipal judge. Municipalities with 400,000 people or more must establish municipal divisions over which a municipal judge presides. Communities of fewer than 400,000 may establish municipal divisions to hear ordinance violations, or the municipality may request these matters be heard through the associate circuit division of the circuit courts.

Judicial Qualifications

The Constitution of Missouri establishes the terms and qualifications of Missouri’s circuit, associate circuit, and municipal judges.

To qualify for the six-year term of circuit judge a person must have been a United States citizen for ten years, a qualified Missouri voter for three years, and a resident of the circuit for one year. The person must be between 30 and 70 years of age and must be licensed to practice law in Missouri.

Associate circuit judges serve four-year terms. An associate circuit judge must be a qualified Missouri voter, a resident of the county in which he or she presides, an attorney licensed to practice law in Missouri, and between the ages of 25 and 70.

To qualify as a municipal judge, the person must be between the ages of 25 and 75 and must be a Missouri resident. If the municipality in which the judge serves has a population of 7,500 or more, the judge must be an attorney. If the municipality has fewer that 7,500 people, a judge who is not an attorney must complete a special course of instruction prescribed by the Supreme Court. The term of a municipal judge is decided by the municipality but may not be less than two years.

Judicial Selection Process

Circuit and associate circuit judges are either elected in the circuit or county in which they are to serve or they are selected through Missouri’s nonpartisan selection plan. Municipal judges are elected or appointed according to the manner prescribed by municipal ordinance or charter.

In 40 of Missouri’s 45 judicial circuits, the circuit and associate circuit judges are elected on a partisan ticket. Five circuits have adopted the nonpartisan selection plan.

Under the nonpartisan method, circuit and associate circuit judges are appointed by the governor from a list of three names submitted by the appropriate Circuit Judicial Commission. Each five-member commission includes the chief judge of the appellate district, two lawyers from that circuit and two citizens from the judicial circuit, not members of the Bar, who are selected by the governor. If a judge is retained in office by the voters in the first general election after his or her first 12 months in office, the judge serves a full six-year (circuit judge) or four-year (associate circuit judge) term.

Presiding Judge

Article V, Section 15(3) of the Missouri Constitution, adopted by the voters in 1976, creates the position of presiding judge in each judicial circuit. The presiding judge has the general administrative authority over the circuit court and its divisions. In circuits with more than one circuit judge, the circuit and associate circuit judges of the circuit select a circuit judge as presiding judge.

Presiding judges throughout Missouri have assumed extensive administrative duties. Subject to the authority of the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court, the presiding judge has general administrative authority over all judicial personnel and court officials in the circuit. Other administrative responsibilities include preparing the circuit budget, record keeping, space management, supervision of municipal courts, and coordination of court activities within the circuit.

To improve the administration of Missouri’s circuit courts and to assist the presiding judge in carrying out these responsibilities, the circuit judges of the circuit may adopt local court rules (see: St. Louis City and St. Louis County local rules). The court rules may address issues such as centralized or divisional filing of cases; cases or classes of cases which are heard by associate circuit judges; other filing, docketing and assignment procedures; and provision for maintaining court records.

Finally, to facilitate the efficient management of a circuit’s case load, the presiding judge has the authority to assign judges to hear cases that may be outside their usual jurisdiction. This authority includes the assignment of cases anywhere within the circuit and the assignment can be made either on a case-by-case or class-of-case basis. The expanded responsibilities of the presiding judge are subject to the provision of Article V of the Constitution of Missouri.

Presiding Judge Assignment Authority

Presiding judges are exercising their assignment authority throughout the State of Missouri. Many cases, which formerly were within the exclusive jurisdiction of the circuit judges, are increasingly being handled by associate circuit judges upon assignment by the presiding judge.


Court En Banc

The Court En Banc is the panel of all judges and commissioners in the circuit and oversees all functions of the Circuit Court.

Court Administration

The Court Administrator manages the daily operations of the Circuit Court under the direction of the Presiding Judge and the Court En Banc. The Court Administrator provides administrative support for court programs, helps the court establish new programs and evaluate the effectiveness of existing programs, and prepares reports requested by the court en banc. The Court Administrator also manages such functions as the local court’s purchasing and accounts payable; personnel system and payroll.

Several units report to the Court Administrator supporting numerous programs for juveniles and adults. Other units support court operations.

Circuit Clerk

The Circuit Clerk is the elected official responsible for maintaining the complete and accurate records of the court; collecting, accounting for and disbursing all monies paid into the court; and performing other duties, as necessary, to assist the court in performing its duties. Some of the duties of a Circuit Clerk include:

  • receiving, processing and maintaining the judgments, rules, orders and all other proceedings of the court.
  • issuing process, such as summons, subpoenas, executions, garnishments, sequestrations, judgments, orders and commitments.
  • collecting and disbursing all fines and costs.
  • on the court's order, collecting and disbursing other monies paid into the court.
  • preserving the court seal and other property of the office.
    providing uniform case reporting.
  • maintaining the court case files in an accurate and complete manner.
    providing staff assistance to the judges to provide for the efficient operation of the court.
  • Each Circuit Clerk employs deputy clerks to assist in performing these duties.

Court Organization

The Missouri Judiciary consists of three levels of courts: The trial courts (also known as the circuit courts), an intermediate appellate court (the Missouri Court of Appeals) that is divided into three regional districts, and the Supreme Court of Missouri.

The circuit courts are the primary trial courts in Missouri and have general jurisdiction (authority) over almost all civil and criminal matters. Every Missouri county has a court and these courts are organized into 45 regional circuits throughout the state.

Circuit Court consists of several divisions including circuit, associate circuit, small claims, municipal, criminal, family, probate and juvenile. The type of case determines the division to which a particular case is assigned.

Circuit Judges & Commissioners

The judges are elected by popular vote. By statute, the number of associate circuit judges is based on the population of the county. The qualifications for a judge are governed by article V, section 21 of the Missouri Constitution. The Family Court Commissioner is appointed pursuant to section 487.020.

Missouri Circuit CourtJurisdiction  Circuit Court JudgesJudicial QualificationsJudicial Selection ProcessPresiding Judge |
PJ Assignment Authority  | Court Offices | Case Processing | Civil Cases | Criminal Cases |

How a Case Moves Through the Court System

This guide is intended to give a general overview of the court system and its procedures, but not all cases proceed as outlined below.

Case Processing in Courts

Municipal Courts

Note: Missouri courts have uniformly held that violations of municipal ordinances are generally civil in nature with quasi-criminal aspect. Quasi-criminal means a proceeding has some, but not all, of the qualities of a criminal prosecution. It refers to "a court's right to punish for actions or omissions as if they were criminal". Because of the "civil" nature of municipal proceedings, the full criminal protects are not usually given to defendants. However, when a case is appealed (trial de novo) to circuit court, criminal rules and protections apply.

Municipal courts usually process cases as follows:

1. Initial Appearance – This is the defendant’s first appearance in court, and the defendant is advised of the charges.

2. Arraignment – The defendant appears in court to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. Many courts combine the initial appearance and the arraignment.

3. Trial – If the defendant pleads not guilty, a trial is held. The judge—or at the defendant’s request, a jury—can hear evidence on the charges and find the defendant guilty or not guilty.

4. Sentencing – If the defendant is found guilty, the court imposes the appropriate punishment (sentence, usually a monetary fine).

5. Appeals – Appeals from decisions of St. Louis area municipal courts go to circuit court. The appeal will be heard as a new trial (a trial de novo).

Trials in criminal and civil cases are generally conducted the same way. After all the evidence has been presented and the judge has explained the law related to the case to a jury, the jurors decide the facts in the case and render a verdict. If there is no jury, the judge makes a decision on the case.

Criminal Cases

Criminal cases involve the commission of acts that are prohibited by law and are punishable by probation, fines, imprisonment—or even death. The attorney representing the state, county or municipal government that formally accuses a person of committing a crime is the prosecutor. The person charged with the crime is the defendant. The judge not only ensures that the rights of defendant are respected, but also the Constitutional provision and the statutorily required rights afforded to victims of crime.

1. Arrest – A person is arrested by a law enforcement officer who either sees a crime happen or has a warrant for arrest when probable cause exists that a person committed a crime. When a person is arrested, the person must be brought before a judge for an initial appearance within 24 hours of being arrested or else be released.

2. Initial Appearance – At the initial appearance, the judge determines the defendant’s name and address, informs the defendant of the charges and of the right to remain silent and to have an attorney. The judge appoints an attorney if the defendant cannot afford one and sets the conditions for release from jail.

3. Preliminary Hearing – If a preliminary hearing is held, the judge hears evidence and testimony from witnesses called by the prosecuting attorney and the defendant’s attorney. If the judge determines there is enough evidence to believe the defendant probably committed the crime, the defendant is held for trial in
circuit court, and an arraignment date is set.

4. Arraignment – At the arraignment, the defendant enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest (nolo contendere). If the defendant enters a not guilty plea, the judge will set a trial date. If the defendant enters a guilty plea or declares no contest to the charges, the judge will set a date to sentence the defendant for the crime.

5. Jury Selection – If the case is being decided by a jury a panel of prospective jurors is called into the courtroom. This panel will include a number of persons from whom a jury will be selected to try the case. Alternate jurors may be chosen to take the place of jurors who become ill during the trial.

The panel members are sworn to answer questions about their qualifications to sit as jurors in the case. This questioning process is called the voir dire. This is an examination conducted by the judge and sometimes includes participation by counsel. A deliberately untruthful answer to any fair question could result in serious punishment to the person making it.

The voir dire examination opens with a short statement about the case. The purpose is to inform the jurors of what the case is about and to identify the parties and their lawyers.

Questions are then asked to find out whether any individuals on the panel have any personal interest in the case or know of any reason why they cannot render an impartial verdict. The court also wants to know whether any member of the panel is related to or personally acquainted with the parties, their lawyers, or the witnesses who will appear during trial. Other questions will determine whether any panel members have a prejudice or a feeling that might influence them in rendering a verdict. Any juror having knowledge of the case should explain this to the judge.

Parties on either side may ask that a member of the panel be excused or exempted from service on a particular jury. These requests, or demands, are called challenges.

A person may be challenged for cause if the examination shows he or she might be prejudiced. The judge will excuse an individual from the panel if the cause raised in the challenge is sufficient. There is no limit to the number of challenges for cause which either party may make.

The parties also have a right to a certain number of challenges for which no cause is necessary. These are called peremptory challenges. Each side usually has a predetermined number of peremptory challenges. The peremptory challenge is a legal right long recognized by law as a means of giving both sides some choice in the make-up of a jury. Jurors should clearly understand that being eliminated from the jury panel by a peremptory challenge is no reflection upon their ability or integrity.

In some courts the peremptory challenges are made openly in the hearing of the jury. In others, they are made from the jury list out of the jury’s sight.

6. Trial

Opening Statements – The defendant has the right to a trial in which either a jury or the judge determines guilt. When the court is ready for the trial to begin, each side can make an opening statement. In a criminal case, the prosecuting attorney speaks first.

To begin, the prosecuting attorney gives an overview of the facts that will be presented. The defense attorney may present the same type of opening comment or may save the opening statement until later in the trial when that side of the case begins. Either attorney may decide not to give an opening statement.

Witnesses – The prosecuting attorney begins the case by calling witnesses and asking them questions. This is direct examination.

Witnesses in all trials take an oath or an affirmation that what they say in court is true. All trial evidence, including testimony and physical evidence, such as documents, weapons, or articles of clothing, must be acceptable as defined by the Missouri Rules of Evidence before it can be admitted into evidence and shown to the jury. The judge decides what evidence and testimony are admissible under the rules.

In a criminal trial, the prosecuting attorney presents evidence and witness testimony to try to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. The defendant’s attorney may present evidence and witnesses to show that the defendant did not commit the crime or to create a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt. The defendant is considered innocent of the crime charged until proven guilty.

When the prosecution has finished questioning a witness, the defense is allowed to cross-examine the witness on any relevant matter. After cross-examination, the attorney who first called the witness may ask the witness more questions to clarify something touched on in the cross-examination. This is redirect examination. The judge may allow an opportunity for the opposing attorney to re-cross examine.

When the prosecution has called all the witnesses for its side of the case and presented all of its evidence, it rests its case.

At this point, the defendant’s attorney may ask for a judgment of acquittal. This means that the attorney is asking the court to decide the case in the defendant’s favor because the prosecuting attorney did not present enough evidence to prove the case against the defendant. If the judge agrees that there is not enough evidence to rule against the defendant, the judge rules in favor of the defendant, and the case ends.

If a judgment of acquittal is not requested or if the request is denied, the defense may present evidence for its side of the case. The defense attorney often waits until this point in the trial to make an opening statement.

The defense may choose not to present evidence, as it is not required to do so. The defendant in a criminal case is not required to prove innocence. The burden is on the prosecution to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

If the defense does present a case and call witnesses, the same rules and procedures that governed presentation of evidence by the prosecution now apply to evidence presented by the defense including the opportunity for the prosecutor to cross-examine defense witnesses.

At the end of the defendant’s case, the prosecutor may present additional information to respond to evidence offered by the defense. Following this, the defense is given another opportunity to present more evidence on the defendant’s behalf.

Closing Arguments – After the prosecution and the defense have presented all of their evidence, each side may make closing arguments. Closing arguments—similar to opening statements—provide an opportunity for the attorneys to address the judge or the jury a final time. The prosecutor speaks first, usually summarizing the evidence that has been presented and highlighting items most beneficial to the prosecution. The defendant’s attorney speaks next. The defense attorney usually summarizes the strongest points of the defendant’s case and points out flaws in the prosecutor’s case. The prosecutor then has one last opportunity to speak.

Instructing the Jury – After closing arguments in a jury trial, the judge reads instructions to the jurors, explaining the law that applies to the case. Jury members must follow these instructions in reaching a verdict.

Jury Deliberations – The jury goes to a special jury room and elects a foreman to lead the discussion. Jurors must consider all of the evidence presented, review the facts of the case, and reach a verdict. When the jury makes its decision, the court is called back into session.

Verdict – The foreman presents a written verdict to the judge, and either the judge or the court clerk reads the jury’s verdict to the court. The court then enters a judgment based on the verdict, and the jury is released from service. If found not guilty, the defendant is released immediately. If the defendant is found guilty, a date is set for sentencing. The defendant may be held in custody or remain on release status until sentencing.

Sentencing – A sentencing hearing is scheduled to determine the punishment a convicted defendant will receive. The judge hears testimony from the prosecution and the defense regarding the punishment that each side feels the convicted defendant should receive.

In Missouri, the Legislature has established a range of sentences for different crimes, and the judge must impose a sentence within the range outlined by law. The options may include probation, fines, imprisonment, or a combination of these punishments. In some cases, the death penalty can be imposed. A jury rather than the judge is required to decide whether the defendant will receive the death penalty.

Appeals – A convicted defendant may appeal. If the death penalty has been imposed, an automatic appeal is filed with the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals hears appeals in all other criminal cases.

For additional information read, "The Court Process" published by the Missouri Attorney General's Office.

Civil Cases

Civil cases typically involve legal disagreements between individuals, businesses, corporations, or partnerships. A person can also be involved in a civil lawsuit with a government entity, such as a state, county, or city.

Claims that do not exceed $5,000 can be filed in small claims court, see; "The Missouri Small Claims Court Handbook".

Most civil cases involve disputes related to breach of contract, debt collection, monetary compensation for personal injuries, property damage, or family law issues such as divorce.

The party suing in a civil case is the plaintiff, and the party being sued is the defendant.

Steps in a Civil Lawsuit:

  1. The pleadings are the initial step in the civil lawsuit. Each side, or party, will file paperwork to explain their side of the story. Pleadings are governed by rule 55.

    1. The plaintiff files a document (a complaint or a petition) with the clerk of the court stating the reasons why the plaintiff is suing the defendant, outlining how the defendant caused harm, establishes a legal basis way the defendant should be held accountable  and what action the plaintiff wants the court to take
    2. The plaintiff must state whether the case is eligible for arbitration according to court rule.
    3. A copy of the complaint and a summons are delivered to (served on) the defendant. The plaintiff is responsible for delivery of the complaint by paying a fee to the court clerk to have the local sherriff or another party party serve the documents. See rule 54.
    4. The defendant has a limited time (usually 30 days) to file a written answer admitting or denying the statements in the complaint. The defendant can file a counter-claim if they so choose. The counter-claim(s) is an allegation(s) against the plaintiff, outlining the ways in which the plaintiff caused harm to the defendant. The counter-claim also establishes a legal basis for holding the plaintiff responsible for the plaintiff’s alleged actions.
    5. The plaintiff will sometimes file a response to the answer or counter-claim in the form of a reply.
  2. Discovery is a process in which both parties begin to exchange information about the case. Civil discovery is wide-ranging and both plaintiff and defendant may seek disclosure of information that is reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. Discovery also keeps the parties from hiding information from one another. Each party can obtain evidence from the other party or parties by means of discovery devices such as a request for:

    1. Answers to interrogatories, which are a formal set of written questions propounded (submitted) by one litigant and required to be answered by an adversary in order to clarify matters of fact and help to determine in advance what facts will be presented at any trial in the case.

    2. Request for production of documents, a legal request for documents, electronically stored information, or other tangible items that another party provide that it has that pertain to the subject matter of the lawsuit. 

    3. Request for admissions and depositions, the taking of sworn, out-of-court oral testimony of a witness that may be reduced to a written transcript for later use in court or for discovery purposes.

    4. When a discovery request is objected to, the requesting party may seek the assistance of the court by filing a motion to compel discovery, which asks the court to order either the opposing party or a third party to take some action such as turn over the requested documents or provide more sufficient answers to questions.

    5. Discovery can be obtained from non-parties using subpoenas, a court order to compel testimony by a witness or production of evidence under a penalty for failure. There are two common types of subpoena:​

      1. subpoena ad testificandum orders a person to testify before the ordering authority or face punishment. The subpoena can also request the testimony to be given by phone or in person.

      2. subpoena duces tecum orders a person or organization to bring physical evidence before the ordering authority or face punishment. This is often used for requests to mail copies of documents to requesting party or directly to court.

  3. After discovery, if the case is not resolved or settled out of court, then the case is tried before a jury or a judge. Civil trial procedure is similar to criminal procedure, with each side having the opportunity for opening and closing statements, direct examination and cross examination of witnesses, and introduction of other evidence. The judge makes a decision or the jury gives its verdict, based on the testimony and other evidence presented during trial.
  4. The losing party may appeal the decision to the next higher level of the court. In certain types of cases a trial de novo can be requested which is a new trial, which is usually conducted at the same court level. Information about appeals to the Missouri Court of Appeals or Supreme Court are below.

Court of Appeals Case Processing

The Court of Appeals is divided geographically into the Eastern District, Western District and Southern District. When an appeal is filed, the trial court sends the official case records to the Court of Appeals. When the records and the attorneys’ written arguments (briefs) have been received by the court, the case is said to be at issue and is assigned to a three-judge panel for consideration. All cases filed in the Court of Appeals must be accepted for review and decided by the court.

The brief of the person filing the appeal (the appellant) contains legal and factual arguments as to why the decision of the trial court should be reversed. The person against whom the appeal is made (the appellee) has the right to respond to these arguments.

An appellate court does not conduct trials. It reviews papers, exhibits, and transcripts from the trial court. These items are the record on appeal and are used to determine whether the trial court correctly followed the law in making its decision.

After they have reviewed the record, Court of Appeals judges may hear oral arguments from the attorneys before deciding the case and issuing an opinion. A majority vote (at least two out of three judges in agreement) decides the case.

Court of Appeals judges have three choices when making a decision:

  • affirm (agree with) the trial court’s decision;
  • reverse the decision (disagree), or
  • remand the case (send the case back to the trial court for further action or a new trial).

Supreme Court Case Processing

The Supreme Court of Missouri is the highest court in the state of Missouri. It is located in Jefferson City, Missouri. Missouri voters have approved changes in the state's constitution to give the Supreme Court exclusive jurisdiction- the sole legal power to hear – five types of cases on appeal. Pursuant to Article V, Section 3 of the Missouri Constitution, these cases involve:

  • The validity of a United States statute or treaty.
  • The validity of a Missouri statute or constitutional provision.
  • The state's revenue laws.
  • Challenges to a statewide elected official's right to hold office.
  • Imposition of the death penalty.

Unless their case involves one of those five issues, people who want a trial court's decision reviewed must appeal to the Missouri Court of Appeals. Certain cases, however, can be transferred to the Supreme Court – at the Court's discretion – if it determines that a question of general interest or importance is involved, that the laws should be re-examined, or that the lower court's decision conflicts with an earlier appellate decision. This is similar to the process the United States Supreme Court uses in accepting cases. In addition, the Court of Appeals may transfer a case to the Supreme Court after an opinion is issued, either upon application of one of the parties or at the request of one of the judges on the appellate panel.

When a party wants the Supreme Court to hear a case, the party files a petition for review. The record then is transferred to the Supreme Court. After examining the petition for review and supporting materials, the court decides whether to grant or deny review.

In almost all cases, the Supreme Court’s review is discretionary. This means the court may decide not to accept the case. In that event, the last decision from a lower court is final.

When the Supreme Court decides to review a lower court decision, the justices study the record and the questions or points of law it raises. In most cases, the court will hear oral arguments from the attorneys involved in the appeal.

During oral argument, the attorney for the appellant (the party making the appeal) highlights and clarifies the client’s side of the case. Then the attorney for the appellee (the party responding to the appeal) presents the other side. The justices often question the attorneys about the issues and about the case law cited in support of their position.

After reviewing the parties’ briefs and hearing the parties’ oral argument, the justices meet privately to deliberate and vote on how the case should be resolved. A majority vote decides the case, and the Chief Justice assigns a justice to write the court’s majority opinion.

Decisions of the court must be in writing. When issuing a written decision or opinion, the court may:

  • Affirm (agree with) the judgment of the lower court, which means that judgment is final;
  • Reverse (disagree with) the decision of the lower court, meaning the Supreme Court’s decision must be carried out, or


The Court of Appeals is authorized by Article V, Sec. 4 of the Missouri Constitution to issue extraordinary original remedial writs. The five types of remedial writs are prohibition, mandamus, habeas corpus, quo warranto, and certiorari. The remedial writs are extraordinary remedies in contrast to a direct appeal. The writs are distinct from a direct appeal, are not intended as a substitute for appeal, and will not lie if an appeal is possible or where there is another adequate remedy. An excellent discussion of the purpose and application of each of the five extraordinary writs may be found in the Missouri Bar CLE desk book on Appellate Court Practice, 5th Ed. (2002). Rules 84.22 through 84.24 set forth the procedure governing extraordinary remedial writs in general; Rule 97 governs prohibition; Rules 94, mandamus; Rule 91, habeas corpus; and Rule 98, quo warranto. 

The writ duty division of the Court consists of a presiding judge and one other judge. Each writ division serves for a one month period. Upon issuance of a preliminary order or upon disagreement by members of the writ division, a third judge, also selected by rotation, is added to the division. The Court has a writ attorney to whom inquiries and correspondence concerning writs should be directed. Original remedial writs will not be issued by an appellate court where relief can be afforded by appeal or by application to a lower court. Rule 84.22(a). 

The writ petition accompanied by suggestions in support, exhibits, and a $70.00 docket fee is filed. Rule 81.04(c) and 84.24(a). In addition, a writ summary not to exceed one page shall accompany all writ petitions, other than habeas corpus. Rule 84.24(a)(1). The summary shall substantially conform to Civil Procedure Form No. 16 and identify the parties, the nature of the underlying action, the action being challenged, the relief sought and state the date the case is set for trial or date of any other event bearing upon the relief sought. See Appendix H. In child custody habeas corpus proceedings, the Writ Service Information Form shall be completed. See Appendix I. An original plus five copies of the writ petition, suggestions in support, exhibits, and writ summary must be filed. Special Rule 330(f). In petitions for a writ of mandamus, writ of prohibition, or petition in quo warranto, the exhibits shall be attached to the petition along with an index of all exhibits. The exhibits shall be identified in the index by number or letter and page, and, in addition, shall be described so the court can distinguish the exhibits. The pages of the exhibits shall be numbered consecutively. Rules 94.03; 97.03; 98.03.

Proof of service shall be filed which shall identify the name, address, and phone number of each attorney served and the name of the party each represents. Rule 84.24(a)(4). The respondent has ten (10) days in which to file suggestions in opposition that shall be served on the relator prior to or on the day of filing in the Clerk's office. Rule 84.24(c). If the ten (10) day time limit would defeat the purpose of the writ, the relator may request that time to file suggestions in opposition be shortened or eliminated altogether. Rule 84.24(e).
After the petition is filed, the judges of the writ division shall determine whether to issue a preliminary order, issue a peremptory writ, or deny the writ petition. Oral argument is not granted at this stage of the proceedings. If the petition is denied, the attorneys will be informed by a written order. The Court seldom states a reason why the petition for the writ is denied. If the petition is denied, that ends the matter in this Court. Motions for reconsideration or applications for transfer shall not be filed. Rule 84.24(m). The relator's only remedy is to file an original petition in the Supreme Court of Missouri. 

If a preliminary order is issued, the order will require the respondent to file an answer. Rule 84.24. Even though a respondent may have filed suggestions in opposition before the issuance of the preliminary order, the respondent must still file an answer as directed by the preliminary order. The answer admits or denies the allegations of the relator's petition. Failure to file an answer within the time specified by the preliminary order will result in judgment by default for the relief requested in the relator's petition. 

There is no requirement that a legal file or a transcript be filed. Copies of the relevant documents are attached to the petition or suggestions of the parties as exhibits. The preliminary order may also set forth a briefing schedule and a date for oral argument. See Rule 84.04 for contents of the brief if requested. The Court will thereafter issue an opinion either making the preliminary order permanent or quashing it. A motion for rehearing or an application for transfer may then be filed in accordance with Rules 84.17 and 83. However, if the preliminary order is quashed without an opinion, relator's only remedy is to file an original petition in the Missouri Supreme Court.

Put the power of the law in your hands