The system of ordinary courts is headed by the Supreme Court in Vienna. This court is the court of final instance for most civil and criminal cases. It can also hear cases involving commercial, labor, or patent decisions, but constitutional or administrative decisions are outside its purview. Justices hear cases in five-person panels.
Four superior courts, which are appellate courts, are located in Vienna, Graz, Linz, and Innsbruck. They are usually courts of second instance for civil and criminal cases and are the final appellate courts for district court cases. Usually, a three-judge panel hears cases.
On a lower level are seventeen regional courts having jurisdiction over provincial and district matters. Boundaries of judicial districts may or may not coincide with those of administrative districts. Regional courts serve as courts of first instance for civil and criminal cases carrying penalties of up to ten years' imprisonment and as appellate courts for some cases from district courts. Justices usually sit as a threeperson panel, but some cases can be heard by only one judge. Vienna and Graz have separate courts for civil, criminal, and juvenile cases, and Vienna also has a separate commercial court.
At the lowest level are about 200 district or local courts, which decide minor civil and criminal cases, that is, those involving small monetary value or minor misdemeanors. Questions involving such issues as guardianship, adoption, legitimacy, probate, registry of lands, and boundary disputes are also settled at this level. Depending on the population of the area, the number of judges varies, but one judge can decide a case. Civil and criminal matters are heard in separate courts in Vienna and Graz. Vienna further divides civil courts into one for commercial matters and one for other civil cases.
Ordinary court judges are chosen by the federal president or, if the president so decides, by the minister for justice on the basis of cabinet recommendations. The judiciary retains a potential voice in naming judges, inasmuch as it must submit the names of two candidates for each vacancy on the courts. The suggested candidates, however, need not be chosen by the cabinet. Lay people have an important role in the judicial system in cases involving crimes carrying severe penalties, political felonies, and misdemeanors. The public can participate in court proceedings as lay assessors or as jurors. Certain criminal cases are subject to a hearing by two lay assessors and two judges. The lay assessors and judges decide the guilt or innocence and punishment of a defendant. If a jury, usually eight lay people, is used, the jury decides the guilt of the defendant. Then jury and judges together determine the punishment.
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