Judicial Branch: Overview
Under the 1983 Constitution of Georgia, the judicial power of the state is vested in seven levels or classes of courts. The Georgia court system has two appellate-level courts: the Supreme Court of Georgia and the cCourt of Appeals of Georgia. There are five classes of trial-level courts: the superior, state, juvenile, probate, and magistrate courts. In addition, approximately 400 municipal and/or special courts operate at the local level.
The most familiar trial court in Georgia's judicial branch is the superior court. Each county is to have at least one superior court (or be a part of a judicial circuit composed of several counties). Superior courts have general jurisdiction, meaning they hear almost any civil or criminal case. If the county's population warrants it, the locality will have a magistrate court, a probate court, and where needed, a state court and a juvenile court.
The superior court is Georgia's general jurisdiction trial court. It has exclusive jurisdiction over trials in felony cases, divorce, equity, and cases pertaining to land. Georgia counties are divided into forty-nine judicial circuits, each of which has at least one superior court judge. Sessions of court must be held in each county at least twice a year. Superior court judges are elected on a nonpartisan basis in circuitwide elections for four-year terms. To qualify as a superior court judge, a candidate must have been at least thirty years old, be a citizen of Georgia for at least three years, and have practiced law for at least seven years.
In seventy counties in Georgia, state courts exercise jurisdiction over misdemeanor violations, including traffic cases, and adjudicate civil actions except in cases in which the superior court has exclusive jurisdiction. State courts are authorized to hold hearings on applications for an issuance of search and arrest warrants and to hold preliminary hearings. State court judges are elected to four-year terms in nonpartisan, countywide elections. Candidates must be at least twenty-five years old, have been admitted to practice law for at least seven years, and have lived in the state for at least three years. Of the 109 authorized state court judgeships, approximately one-half of the positions are full-time and the others are part-time. Part-time judges may practice law, except in their own courts.
Probate courts, formerly called courts of ordinary, have original jurisdiction in the probation of wills, administration of estates, appointment of guardians, and involuntary hospitalization of mentally incapacitated adults. They administer oaths of office and issue marriage licenses. They also supervise the printing of election ballots and the counting of votes, and in some counties they have jurisdiction over traffic and compulsory school attendance laws. They may hold habeas corpus hearings or preside over criminal preliminary hearings. In counties with a population greater than 96,000, a party to a civil case may request a jury trial in the probate court. Probate judges may handle certain misdemeanor cases, traffic cases, and violations of state game and fish laws in counties where there is no state court.
Each county has a probate court with one probate judge, who is elected for a term of four years in countywide partisan elections. Qualifications for this office vary. In larger counties, those with a population greater than 96,000, a candidate for probate judge must have practiced law for seven years and be at least thirty years of age. In all counties a candidate for probate judge must be at least twenty-five years of age, a high school graduate, and a county resident for at least two years preceding the election.
Courts without Jury Trials
The jurisdiction of juvenile courts extends to delinquent children under the age of seventeen and deprived children under the age of eighteen. Juvenile courts have concurrent jurisdiction with superior courts in cases involving capital felonies, custody and child support cases, and proceedings to terminate parental rights. In addition, the juvenile courts have jurisdiction over minors committing traffic violations and other special consent cases (underage persons seeking to serve in the military or obtain a marriage license). The superior court has jurisdiction over juveniles who commit certain violent felonies, including murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape and other sexual offenses, and armed robbery if committed with a firearm.
Juvenile court judges are appointed by the superior court judges to serve four-year terms. Candidates must be at least thirty years of age, must have been admitted to the practice of law for five years, and must have lived in Georgia for at least three years. There are 120 full- and part-time juvenile court judges who hear juvenile cases exclusively. Full-time juvenile judges cannot practice law while holding office.
Under the 1983 Constitution, justice of the peace courts and small claims courts became magistrate courts. Magistrate court jurisdiction includes civil claims of $15,000 or less, dispossessory writs, county ordinance violations, misdemeanor deposit account fraud (bad checks), preliminary hearings, issuance of summons, arrest warrants, and search warrants.
The chief magistrate of each county assigns cases, schedules court sessions, and appoints other magistrates (with the consent of the superior court judges of the judicial circuit). Most chief magistrates are elected in partisan, countywide elections to four-year terms. In some counties chief magistrates run in nonpartisan elections. In a few counties the chief magistrate is appointed by the local legislative delegation.
To qualify as a magistrate, an individual must have resided in the county for at least one year preceding his or her term of office, be twenty-five years of age, and have a high school diploma. Other qualifications may be imposed by local legislation. There are 159 chief magistrates and 346 magistrates in Georgia.
Magistrates may grant bail in cases in which the setting of bail is not exclusively reserved to a judge of another court. If a defendant submits a written request for a jury trial, cases may be removed to superior or state court.
The Court of Appeals was established by a constitutional amendment in 1906. Under the 1983 Constitution it is a court of review and exercises jurisdiction over appeals from superior, state, and juvenile courts in all cases not reserved to the Supreme Court of Georgia. These cases include civil claims for damages, child custody cases, workers' compensation and other administrative law cases, and all criminal cases other than capital felonies.
The court is made up of twelve judges. The chief judge, elected by the members of the court to a two-year term, is responsible for the administration of the court. Cases are heard by panels consisting of three judges. Panel decisions are final unless a judge dissents. If, after a hearing by the full court, the judges are equally divided on a decision, the case is transferred to the state supreme court.
Court of appeals judges are elected statewide on a nonpartisan basis for six-year terms. Candidates for a judgeship on the court of appeals must have been admitted to practice law for at least seven years before assuming office.
The Georgia Constitution of 1835 first authorized the supreme court, but it actually came into being in 1845, when the Georgia legislature established the state's first appellate court. It functions as a court of review, and it exercises exclusive appellate jurisdiction in cases in which the constitutionality of a law, ordinance, or constitutional provision has been drawn into question, and in all cases of election contest. It has appellate jurisdiction in
• cases involving title to land;
• equity cases;
• cases involving wills;
• habeas corpus cases;
• cases involving extraordinary remedies (mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto);
• divorce and alimony cases;
• cases certified to it by the Court of Appeals; and
• cases in which a sentence of death was imposed or could be imposed.
Terms of court begin in January, April, and September. Cases are assigned in rotation to the justices for preparation of opinions and decisions of the whole court. When a justice prepares an opinion, it is circulated for study to all of the other justices, and after discussion en banc (meaning "in full court"), the opinion is adopted or rejected by a majority of the justices. The justices elect the chief justice and a presiding justice to handle administrative matters for the court.
The seven justices who serve on the supreme court are elected to six-year terms in statewide, nonpartisan elections. A candidate for supreme court justice must have been admitted to practice law for at least seven years before assuming office.
Other Local Courts
Approximately 400 local courts are also part of the Georgia court system. Courts of incorporated municipalities try municipal ordinance violations, issue criminal warrants, conduct preliminary hearings, and may have concurrent jurisdiction over shoplifting cases and drug cases involving possession of one ounce or less of marijuana. Qualifications of judges and terms of office in municipal courts are set by local legislation.
Administering the Courts
The Judicial Council is the state-level judicial agency charged with developing policies for administering and improving the courts. Twenty-four representatives of the appellate and trial courts make up the council. The chief justice and presiding justice of the supreme court act as the chairperson and vice chairperson, respectively. Completing the roster of council membership are the chief judge and another judge of the court of appeals; the presidents and presidents-elect of the superior, state, juvenile, probate, and magistrate court councils; and the ten superior court district administrative judges.
The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) staffs the Judicial Council. The AOC serves all classes of courts by generating court statistical information, providing publications of interest to the judiciary, acting as liaison with judicial branch policymaking groups, and coordinating annual judicial branch appropriations requests and other fiscal services.
Appropriations for judicial salaries and operating expenses at the appellate level come from state revenues. State and county finances share funding for the superior courts. Limited jurisdiction courts are funded solely by county governments.
Continuing education for Georgia's judges and court services personnel is provided by the Institute of Continuing Legal Education, which is a consortium of the State Bar of Georgia and the law schools of the University of Georgia and Emory, Mercer, and Georgia State universities.
Your Guide to the Georgia Courts (Atlanta: Administrative Office of the Courts, 2003).
Gwen Y. Wood, Augusta State University
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.