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The Supreme Court, the state's highest court, reviews decisions made by other courts in civil and criminal cases. This court alone rules on questions involving the constitutionality of state statutes, all criminal cases involving a sentence of death, and petitions from decisions of the Court of Appeals. No trials are held at the appellate level; oral arguments 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.