Court of Appeals
The Court of Appeals is the court of first review for many civil and criminal cases decided in the trial courts. The purpose of such a review is to correct legal errors or errors of law made at the trial level, not to alter jury verdicts or the outcome of bench trials.
The Superior Court is Georgia’s general jurisdiction trial court. It has exclusive, constitutional authority over felony cases, divorce, equity and cases regarding title to land. The exclusive jurisdiction of this court also covers such matters as declaratory judgments, habeas corpus, mandamus, quo warranto, and prohibition. The Superior Court corrects errors made by lower courts by issuing writs of certiorari; for some lower courts, the right to direct review by the Superior Court applies.
The State Court was established by a 1970 legislative act that designated certain existing countywide courts of limited jurisdiction as state courts. State courts may exercise jurisdiction over all misdemeanor violations, including traffic cases, and all civil actions, regardless of the amount claimed, unless the superior court has exclusive jurisdiction.
The purpose of our Juvenile Courts is to protect the well-being of children, provide guidance and control conducive to child welfare and the best interests of the state, and secure care for children removed from their homes.
Magistrate Court jurisdiction includes: civil claims of $15,000 or less; certain minor criminal offenses; distress warrants and dispossessory writs; county ordinance violations; deposit account fraud (bad checks); preliminary hearings; and summonses, arrest and search warrants. A chief magistrate, who may be assisted by one or more magistrates, presides over each of Georgia’s 159 magistrate courts.
County Probate Courts exercise exclusive, original jurisdiction in the probate of wills, administration of estates, appointment of guardians and involuntary hospitalization of incapacitated adults and other individuals.
Each case accepted for review by the Supreme Court is assigned to one of the seven justices for preparation of a preliminary opinion for circulation to all other justices. The justices review trial transcripts, case records, and the accompanying legal briefs prepared by attorneys. An opinion is adopted or rejected by the Court after thorough discussion by all the justices in conference.
The Chief Justice and the Presiding Justice serve as officers of the court for two-year terms; there are seven justices total. The Chief Justice presides at official sessions of the Supreme Court and conferences of the justices. The Supreme Court is assigned oversight of the legal profession and the judiciary, as well as other designated duties.
The Court of Appeals has twelve judges who are assigned to one of four panels made up of three judges each. Once a case is assigned to a panel, the judges review the trial transcript, relevant portions of the record, and briefs submitted by the attorneys for the parties. Panels also hear oral arguments in a small number of cases. Panel decisions are final unless one judge dissents. If necessary, a case may be reviewed by the full court.
Superior Courts are organized into 10 Judicial Districts, comprised of 49 judicial circuits. Each county has its own Superior Court, though a judge may serve more than one county. A chief judge handles the administrative tasks for each circuit. Superior Court judges are elected to four-year terms in nonpartisan, circuit-wide races. To qualify as a Superior Court judge, a candidate must be at least 30 years old, a citizen of Georgia for at least three years, and have practiced law for at least seven years. Superior Court judges who have retired and taken senior status may hear cases in any circuit at the request of a local judge, an administrative judge, or the governor.
State Courts are authorized to hold hearings on applications for an issuance of search and arrest warrants and to hold preliminary hearings. The Georgia Constitution grants state courts authority to review lower court decisions as provided by statute.
The General Assembly creates state courts by local legislation. Legislation also establishes the number of judges and whether the judges are to be full or part-time. Part-time judges may practice law, except in their own courts. State Court judges are elected to four-year terms in nonpartisan, countywide elections. Candidates must be at least 25 years old, have been admitted to practice law for at least seven years, and have lived in the state for at least three years.
The exclusive, original jurisdiction of Juvenile Courts extends to delinquent children under the age of 17 and deprived or unruly children under the age of 18. Juvenile courts have concurrent jurisdiction with superior courts in cases involving capital felonies, custody and child support cases, and in proceedings to terminate parental rights. The superior courts have original jurisdiction over those juveniles who commit certain serious felonies. The Juvenile Court also has jurisdiction over minors committing traffic violations or enlisting in the military services, consent to marriage for minors, and cases involving the Interstate Compact on Juveniles.
Juvenile Court judges are appointed by the superior court judges of the circuit to four-year terms. Judges must be 30 years of age, have practiced law for five years, and have lived in Georgia for three years. Full-time judges cannot practice law while holding office.
Magistrates may grant bail in cases where the setting of bail is not exclusively reserved to a judge of another court. No jury trials are held in magistrate court. If a defendant submits a written request for a jury trial, cases may be removed to superior or state court.
The chief magistrate of each county assigns cases, sets court sessions, appoints other magistrates (with the consent of the superior court judges) and sets policy for the magistrate court. The number of magistrates in addition to the chief is usually set by majority vote of the county’s superior court judges.
Most chief magistrates are elected in partisan, countywide elections to four-year terms. The chief magistrate may be appointed, if so provided by local legislation. Terms for other magistrate judges run concurrently with that of the chief magistrate who appointed them.
To qualify as a magistrate, an individual must reside in the county for at least one year preceding his or her term of office, be 25 years of age, and have a high school diploma or its equivalent. A magistrate court judge may also serve as a judge of another limited jurisdiction court in the same county.
All Probate Court judges administer oaths of office and issue marriage licenses. They may hold habeas corpus hearings or preside over criminal preliminary hearings. Unless a jury trial is requested, probate court judges may also hear certain misdemeanors, traffic cases and violations of state game and fish laws in counties where there is no state court. When authorized by local statute, probate judges serve as election supervisors and make appointments to certain local public offices. In counties with population greater than 96,000, a party to a civil case may request a jury trial in the probate court by a written demand with the first pleading. Appeals from such civil cases may be to the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals depending on the particular matter.
Most Probate Court judges are elected to four-year terms in countywide, partisan elections. A candidate for judge of the probate court must be at least 25 years of age, a high school graduate, a U.S. citizen and a county resident for at least two years preceding the election. In counties with population over 96,000, a candidate for probate judge must have practiced law for seven years and be at least 30 years of age.
Courts of incorporated municipalities try municipal ordinance violations, issue criminal warrants, conduct preliminary hearings, and may have concurrent jurisdiction over shoplifting cases and cases involving possession of one ounce or less of marijuana.
Judges appointed after July 1, 2011, are required to be attorneys. Those in office prior to that date must meet certain training requirements.
The Georgia court system has five classes of trial-level courts: themagistrate,probate,juvenile,state, andsuperiorcourts. In addition, there are approximately 350 municipal courts operating locally. There are two appellate-level courts: the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.
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Trial Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
Magistrate courts are county courts that issue warrants, hear minor criminal offenses and civil claims involving amounts of $15,000 or less. A chief magistrate is either elected or appointed in each county as determined by local legislation; other magistrates may be appointed by the chief magistrate.
Magistrate court is the court of first resort for many civil disputes including: county ordinance violations, dispossessories, landlord/tenant cases, and bad checks. In criminal matters magistrates hold preliminary hearings; issue search warrants to law enforcement and also warrants for the arrest of a particular person. In some criminal matters magistrates are authorized to set bail for defendants.
No jury trials are held in magistrate court; civil cases are often argued by the parties themselves, rather than by attorneys.
Original jurisdiction in the probate of wills and administration of decedents' estates is designated to the probate court of each county. Probate judges are also authorized to order involuntary hospitalization of an incapacitated adult or other individual and to appoint a legal guardian to handle the affairs of certain specified individuals. Probate courts issue marriage licenses and licenses to carry firearms.
In counties where no state court exists, probate judges may hear traffic violations, certain misdemeanors, and citations involving the state game and fish laws. Many probate judges are authorized to serve as the county elections supervisor; they also administer oaths of office and make appointments to certain local public offices. In counties where the total population exceeds 96,000, the probate judge must be a licensed attorney who has practiced law for seven years.
Juvenile courts handle all cases involving deprived and neglected children under 18 years of age; delinquent and unruly offenses committed by children under 17 years of age; and traffic violations committed by juveniles. The juvenile courts also hear cases involving consent to marriage for minors, enlistment of minors in the military, and procedures for return of a runaway child resident who is taken into custody in another state.
Juvenile courts have concurrent jurisdiction with superior courts in child custody and child support matters arising from divorces cases, and in proceedings to terminate parental rights. Original jurisdiction over juveniles who commit certain serious violent felonies resides in the superior courts.
Juvenile court judges are appointed by agreement of the superior court judges of the circuit to four-year terms of office.
State courts exercise limited jurisdiction within one county. These judges hear misdemeanors including traffic violations, issue search and arrest warrants, hold preliminary hearings in criminal cases and try civil matters not reserved exclusively for the superior courts. A state court is established by local legislation introduced in the General Assembly.
State court judges are elected to four-year terms in county-wide nonpartisan elections. Vacancies in state court may be filled by appointment of the Governor.
Cities and towns in Georgia establish municipal courts to handle traffic offenses, local ordinance violations, conduct preliminary hearings, issue warrants, and in some instances hear misdemeanor shoplifting and possession of marijuana cases. Municipal court judges are often appointed by the mayor, some are elected. There are more than 350 municipal courts operating in Georgia.
The superior court exercises both civil and criminal jurisdiction. Superior court judges preside over all felony trials, have exclusive jurisdiction over divorces and may correct errors made by limited jurisdiction courts. The forty-nine superior court circuits in Georgia are made up of one or more counties; each circuit has a chief superior court judge and a number of other judges as authorized by the General Assembly.
Superior court judges are constitutional officers who are elected to four-year terms in circuit-wide nonpartisan elections. Vacancies that occur in superior court may be filled by appointment of the Governor. A candidate for superior court judge must be at least 30 years of age, a lawyer who has practiced for seven years, and a resident of the state for three years.
Jury trials are a hallmark of the American legal system. Each day around the state, our trial courts require hundreds of ordinary citizens to report to the courthouse for jury duty. Both a right and responsibility, service as a juror places the individual citizen in a central role in the justice system.
Courts of Review
Court of Appeals of Georgia
The Court of Appeals is the court of first review for many civil and criminal cases heard by the trial courts. The purpose of such a review is to correct legal errors or errors of law made at the trial level, not to alter jury verdicts or the outcome of bench trials.
The Court of Appeals has twelve judges who are assigned to one of four panels made up of three judges each. Once a case is assigned to a panel, the judges review the trial transcript, relevant portions of the record, and briefs submitted by the attorneys for the parties. Panels also hear oral arguments in a small number of cases.
Panel decisions are final unless one judge dissents. If necessary, a case may be reviewed by a larger number of judges of the Court of Appeals for decision.
Supreme Court of Georgia
The Supreme Court, the state's highest court, reviews decisions made in civil and criminal cases by a trial court judge or by the Court of Appeals. This court also rules on questions involving the constitutionality of state statutes and all criminal cases involving a sentence of death. No trials are held at the appellate level, nor do the parties appear before the court. If attorneys present oral arguments, these are heard by the entire court.
Each case accepted for review by the Supreme Court is assigned to one of the seven justices for preparation of a preliminary opinion (decision) for circulation to all other justices. The justices review trial transcripts, case records and the accompanying legal briefs prepared by attorneys. An opinion is adopted or rejected by the Court after thorough discussion by all the justices in conference.
The Chief Justice and the Presiding Justice serve as officers of the court for two-year terms. The Chief Justice presides at official sessions of the Supreme Court and conferences of the justices. The Supreme Court is assigned oversight of the legal profession and the judiciary as well as other designated duties.
At the appellate level, salaries and operating expenses are paid from state revenues. Funding for the superior and juvenile courts is shared by state and county funding sources. Limited jurisdiction courts are funded solely by city or county governments.
At the Courthouse
Our courts have authority over specific types of cases as set forth in the Constitution of the State of Georgia. Limited jurisdiction courts — municipal, magistrate, probate, juvenile and state — hear traffic and criminal misdemeanor cases and civil cases involving lesser amounts of money. Superior court jurisdiction is more extensive including felony offenses, divorce cases and civil matters involving corporations etc. The appellate courts review records of cases tried in limited and general jurisdiction courts to determine if procedural errors or errors of law that could have altered the outcome of the case were made at trial.
Most citizens who come to court are involved in matters that are settled in limited jurisdiction courts. Only a small percentage of cases disposed by the trial courts are appealed to a higher court.Managing today's court operations requires the expertise of many professionals other than judges. Court administrators, court clerks, prosecutors, jury managers, and court reporters are only a few of the staff members who are essential to keeping our trial and appellate courts working smoothly. Issues and decisions regarding automation technology, courthouse design and security, preservation and safekeeping of records make the business of court administrators and other courthouse personnel both complex and indispensable.
Serving the Courts
The Judicial Council/Administrative Office of the Courts was established in 1973 to provide support services to the courts of Georgia. The agency oversees the annual workload assessment study for the superior courts, procures grants for local drug courts and other pilot projects, sponsors court technology and automation efforts, coordinates activities of court councils, and produces publications such as the Georgia Courts Journal and the annual Georgia Courts Directory. In addition the AOC serves as the fiscal officer for a variety of judicial branch commissions and councils.
As an administrative arm of the Supreme Court of Georgia, the AOC operates under the guidance of the Judicial Council, a policy-making body chaired by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia. Membership of the Judicial Council consists of twenty-four judges representing the appellate and trial courts of the state. The Council meets at least three times each year to consider judgeships, budgetary matters, and other judicial branch programs.