03 Oct 23

The Role of the Phoenix Superior Court in Criminal Trials

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Last Updated on: 5th October 2023, 07:31 am


The Role of the Phoenix Superior Court in Criminal Trials

The Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County, located in Phoenix, plays a critical role in criminal trials in the county. As the trial court with general jurisdiction, the Superior Court handles all felony criminal cases, from initial appearances through trials and sentencing. This article provides an overview of the Superior Court’s involvement at different stages of felony criminal proceedings.

Initial Appearances

After a defendant is arrested, they are brought before a Superior Court judge or commissioner within 24 hours for an initial appearance. This is the first time the defendant appears in Superior Court. At the initial appearance:

  • The judge informs the defendant of the charges against them
  • Conditions of release, like bail, are set
  • The defendant is advised of their right to an attorney
  • If eligible, the defendant may be appointed a public defender
  • The next court date is scheduled

Initial appearances in Phoenix take place every day of the week. Most occur at the South Court Tower in downtown Phoenix, where the main Superior Court complex is located. Defendants who are arrested in other parts of Maricopa County may have their initial appearances at regional Superior Court locations, like Mesa or Surprise.

Early Disposition Court

Some less serious felony cases may be resolved soon after the initial appearance through the Early Disposition Court (EDC) program. This allows cases to be settled quickly when both the prosecution and defense agree to a plea deal. Cases heard in EDC typically involve non-violent offenses like drug possession or low-level theft. If a case cannot be resolved in EDC, it moves on to the standard criminal case process.

Assignment to a Trial Judge

For cases that are not resolved early on, the next major step is assignment to a trial judge. Superior Court uses a master calendar system to assign cases. Under this system, felony cases go to a general calendar court after the initial appearance. The judge in the general calendar court handles routine hearings and motions up until the point when a trial date is set. Once a firm trial date is scheduled, the case gets sent to the Associate Criminal Presiding Judge (ACRPJ). This judge, also called the assignment judge, assigns the case to a trial judge based on availability. Using the master calendar approach allows cases to proceed through the pretrial process without tying up the schedules of trial judges.

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Specialty Courts and Judges

While most felony cases follow the standard process, there are some specialty courts and judges in Superior Court:

  • Capital cases – Cases where the defendant faces the death penalty go to judges who specifically handle capital matters.
  • DUI cases – Judges are designated to handle all DUI felony cases.
  • Criminal Presiding Judge – This judge oversees administration of the entire criminal division.
  • Juvenile Court – Special judges and commissioners handle all juvenile offender cases.

These specialty courts help ensure judges with the proper experience and expertise preside over different types of criminal cases.

Criminal Trials

Criminal trials represent the culmination of the Superior Court process for felony cases not resolved through plea agreements or diversion programs. Superior Court judges preside over trials by jury, where the defendant’s guilt or innocence is determined. If found guilty, the judge will also impose a sentence within the statutory guidelines.

Maricopa County Superior Court has over 100 judges available to preside over criminal trials. Most trials take place at the main Superior Court complex in downtown Phoenix. The Superior Court has 15 full courtrooms dedicated to felony criminal trials at this location. Regional court locations like Mesa and Surprise also host criminal trials for cases arising in those areas of the county.


For defendants convicted at trial or who plead guilty, Superior Court judges hand down the sentence. Judges follow sentencing guidelines established in state law but have discretion in some areas, like whether multiple sentences will run concurrently or consecutively. The judge also decides whether probation is appropriate or if time in prison is warranted. In addition to confinement, judges may impose fines, treatment programs, community service, and other conditions.


The Superior Court’s probation department oversees probation for both adults and juveniles. People sentenced to probation will have conditions set by the judge that they must comply with to avoid incarceration. These may include things like drug testing, community service, employment requirements, and mandatory treatment programs. Probation officers monitor compliance and report violations to the court.


Superior Court decisions can be appealed to higher courts in Arizona’s judicial system. Most criminal case appeals go to the Arizona Court of Appeals, with a smaller number going to the Arizona Supreme Court. On appeal, defendants may challenge things like pretrial rulings, their convictions, and/or their sentences. The Superior Court record provides the basis for the appeal proceedings in higher courts.


Key Takeaways

  • Superior Court handles all stages of felony criminal cases – initial appearances, pretrial matters, trials, sentencing, probation, and appeals.
  • Specialized courts and judges allow proper handling of complex or sensitive case types.
  • The master calendar system is an efficient way to process large criminal caseloads.
  • With over 100 judges, Superior Court has the capacity to try many cases simultaneously.
  • Sentencing and probation processes aim to achieve justice, protect public safety, and potentially rehabilitate offenders.

While the Superior Court works closely with law enforcement, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, its independent role is vital for fair and impartial criminal proceedings. The judges and staff of the Phoenix Superior Court administer justice daily in a huge volume of criminal cases.