All about Oregon’s courts

The Oregon Constitution was adopted in 1858 and approved by Congress in 1859. Like the federal Constitution, the Oregon Constitution divided state government into three separate branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The judicial branch then consisted of a Supreme Court, circuit courts and county courts.

Today, the modernized Oregon state court system consists of the Oregon Supreme Court, Oregon Court of Appeals, Oregon Tax Court and 36 circuit courts. To learn more about the powers of each court, please visit the Oregon Judicial Department online. [Oregon Judicial Department]

Chief Justice De Muniz remarks on the State of the Courts:

“…Oregon’s courts are the legal equivalent of the emergency room. We do not control what comes through our doors. We rely on highly-skilled professionals and modern technology to accomplish our work, and we need safe and adequate facilities in which to work. People come to us when they are in distress or have urgent problems that need to be resolved quickly and fairly, so time is of the essence. If courts do not or cannot do their jobs, then many costs are transferred to others.

When the economy goes down, the need for court services is likely to go up. If people without jobs turn to crime, they come to our courts. If they steal, physically assault or sexually abuse others – whether it’s their children, their spouses, or strangers – they come to our courts. If they abuse drugs or alcohol, they come to our courts. If they seek to establish or modify child support orders, they come to our courts. And if their homes are foreclosed, if they are evicted from their apartments, or are sued for failing to pay their obligations, they come to our courts…”

Oregon Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the Oregon judicial branch. In our era, the court has seven elected justices. They choose one of their own to serve a six-year term as Chief Justice. The only court that may reverse or modify a decision of the Oregon Supreme Court is the United States Supreme Court.

Originally, the Oregon Constitution authorized four Supreme Court justices—one for each judicial district then in existence—to be elected by the voters in each district. Those Supreme Court justices would act both as Supreme Court justices and circuit court judges for their respective judicial districts. Circuit courts were the general trial courts, and were to be held at least twice yearly in each district. The Supreme Court had power to “revise the final decisions of the circuit courts.”

In 1878, the Legislature created two distinct classes of judges: Supreme Court justices and circuit court judges. As a result, the Supreme Court justices were no longer required to perform circuit court duties. In 1909, the Legislature increased the number of Supreme Court justices to five. In 1913, the Legislature increased the number to seven, the number still in effect today.


In 1961, the Legislature created the Tax Court and gave it exclusive jurisdiction over all disputes involving the state’s tax laws. It was the first state tax court in the nation.

Oregon Court of Appeals

In 1969, the Legislature created the Oregon Court of Appeals as an intermediate reviewing court with five judges. The Court of Appeals was expanded to six judges in 1973 and to ten in 1977.

Oregon Trial Court

Prior to 1998, Oregon had limited jurisdiction trial courts known as “district courts.” District courts heard only misdemeanors, violations, and smaller civil claims. In January 1998, the district courts merged with the circuit courts, leaving the circuit courts as the single trial court of general jurisdiction.

Oregon Judges

State court judges must be U.S. citizens, Oregon residents for at least three years and lawyers admitted to practice in Oregon. All state court judges are elected in nonpartisan elections and serve six year terms. Supreme Court justices, court of appeals judges, and the tax court judge are elected by statewide ballot. Circuit court judges are elected by the voters in their district. The Supreme Court justices choose one among them to serve a six year term as Chief Justice. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court then appoints a chief judge from among the judges of the Court of Appeals and a chief judge for each circuit court from among the judges of that district.

If a state court judge leaves the court before completing a term, the Governor may appoint another qualified person to fill that vacated position. In order to keep the position, the appointed judge must run for election at the next general election.

County courthouses

To learn more about Oregon’s county courthouses, explore the Oregon County Historical Records Guide.

The Oregon Legislature commissioned an architectural/engineering study of 48 court facilities statewide. The architect/ engineers’ study report found that the “overall estimated cost to upgrade all forty-eight facilities is $843,452,047. The highest- cost facility is the Multnomah County Courthouse at $209,933,611. The lowest is the Deschutes County Courthouse at $1,296,624. The average estimated cost per facility is $17,571,918 and the median is $12,404,758. If the Multnomah County Courthouse is removed from the data set, the average per facility drops over $4 million to approximately $13,480,000.”

“A conservative radio commentator in January suggested -- in a kidding manner -- that Justice John Paul Stevens be poisoned. Deadly anthrax spores were mailed to the Supreme Court’s building in 2001, prompting the building to be evacuated for several weeks, although no injuries were reported.”

For the full report, visit

The Multnomah County Courthouse has not been upgraded for earthquakes. Photos taken of the courthouse basement show its outdated infrastructure, a patchwork of electrical and plumbing lines and overflowing filed documents.