Is District Court a Court of Record?

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People often say that district court is not a court of record for purposes of criminal cases. Is that right?

On the one hand . . . While G.S. 15A-1241 requires that a reporter make a true, complete and accurate record of criminal trial proceedings in superior court, there is no corresponding statutory requirement for criminal trial proceedings in district court, subject to one exception: G.S. 7A-191.1 requires that a true, complete and accurate record be made of a district court proceeding in which a defendant pleads guilty to a Class H or I felony. This divergent practice generally requires that matters appealed from district to superior court be determined de novo and gives rise to the common characterization of district criminal court as “not a court of record.” See, e.g., State v. Ward, 127 N.C. App. 115, 119 (1997).

On the other hand . . . But that is not the only conception of the term court of record. Courts of record are elsewhere defined as courts that administer the general law of the land, have both civil and criminal jurisdiction, and in which a record of the actions taken therein are memorialized and preserved. See Bain v. Hunt, 10 N.C. 572, 576–77 (1825); cf. People v. Rodriguez, 112 P.3d 693, 703–04 (Colo. 2005) (defining courts of record as courts of general jurisdiction that conduct proceedings in accordance with the common law, can impose contempt, fines, and imprisonment, whose records carry “‘absolute verity’” subject only to collateral attack and that keep a record of their proceedings, as distinguished from inferior courts of limited jurisdiction that depend upon legislative action for their jurisdiction). Under this definition, district courts in North Carolina, even when conducting criminal proceedings, are courts of record. See State v. Hopkins, 279 N.C. 473, 476 (1971) (describing district court as a court of record and stating that parol testimony is not admissible to establish, explain or contradict a district court criminal judgment).

This broader conception of the term is the one applied to the Uniform Criminal Extradition Act, codified in Article 37 of Chapter 15A. Thus, a fugitive from another state who is arrested in North Carolina pursuant to a governor’s warrant is taken before a district court judge pursuant to G.S. 15A-730, which requires that such a person “be taken forthwith before a judge of a court of record.” See G.S. 15A-730; Robert L. Farb, State of North Carolina Extradition Manual 48-49, 60 (UNC School of Government 3rd ed. 2013).

The Interstate Agreement on Detainers, codified in Article 38 of Chapter 15A, also appears to utilize the broader meaning of court of record. G.S. 15A-762 refers to “a court of record with criminal jurisdiction” and the agreement, which requires the prompt disposition of outstanding charges against incarcerated persons when a detainer is issued and certain other requirements are satisfied, applies to misdemeanor and felonies alike. See Buchanan v. Hayward, 663 P.2d 70, 71 (Utah 1983) (“There is no restriction in the Agreement as to type or degree of the crime. It applies to all “untried indictments, informations or complaints.”)

It is unclear, however, whether the term “court of record” is similarly construed in the Uniform Act to Secure Attendance of Witnesses from Without a State in Criminal Proceedings. There, G.S. 15A-813 authorizes a judge of a court of record to issue a certificate recommending that a material witness in a prosecution pending in a court of record be taken into custody and delivered to a state officer. The corresponding Administrative Office of the Courts form, AOC-CR-901M, is designed only for use by a superior court judge.

So, is a district court a court of record?  I’ll give you my standard lawyer answer:  It depends.

3 comments on “Is District Court a Court of Record?

  1. Very helpful.
    It might assist us somewhat if a discussion were made concerning what is generally recorded in the clerk’s minutes or the recording systems, the CDs available of the proceedings, and how these could be used.

  2. Which reminds me of one of my favorite lesser-known SCOTUS opinions: Ward v. Village of Monroevillle, 409 U.S. 57 (1972), which basically holds that we all have certain fundamental rights, the denial of which is not cured by the right to trial de novo. Among these, I suspect, are the rights against self-incrimination, to an impartial judge (the Ward decision), to an disinterested prosecutor, to subpoena witnesses, of cross-examination (some of us remember the admission as evidence of the affidavit of chemical analyst in district court DWI cases), and the presumption of innocence and the burden on the State of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

    Although I once had a district court judge tell me from the bench that she had convicted my client “by the greater weight of the evidence.” And I once had a district court judge, in an indirect criminal contempt case, force my client to testify in his own defense, so….

  3. What is the significance of it being a court of record or not? The clerk takes down the judgments, etc. If an attorney wants to record a PC hearing or a trial, she brings a recording device and gets the permission of the court. The transcript is not official but it can be used in superior court.