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Basic Guide to the Courts of Georgia

Posted by attorney Joshua Schiffer

The Supreme Court of the State of Georgia The Supreme court is the highest court in our state. It is staffed by seven elected members who, amongst themselves and as directed by law, individually review each case selected to be heard during the term of court. The Justices are assisted by a staff of dozens including staff attorney's, case managers, investigators and others. The court has jurisdictional review over virtually all cases in the state judicial system in Georgia and also addresses many important Federal Law issues. In order to reach the Supreme Court of Georgia the case must either arise in the original jurisdiction of the court (think elections and treaties) or it has been sent to the court for review by a lower court, such as the Georgia Court of Appeals. It is extraordinarily rare for a case to reach the Supreme Court, as it is the final arbiter of the laws of Georgia, and the only legal review available to parties who are not satisfied with the Court's ruling is the Federal system. The court has a very limited docket as the issues it addresses are more "fundamental" in nature rather than a disagreement concerning the "facts" of a particular case. It takes several years for most cases to reach this level, if ever, and most of the "work" is performed out of the public eye, as the evidence is typically well established and oral arguments are used more to clarify positions rather than persuade a justice to change their mind. In order to inform the court of the issues they are addressing, "briefs" of various types may be filed by the parties or other groups who wish to be heard on the issues. The Justices then issues "opinions" that state the result of the litigation. Georgia Court of Appeals This is one of the hardest working courts in the State of Georgia. This court has four panels of three members each that are assigned cases to review as the traditional "first" appeal of a case. If there is disagreement on the three judge panel, a novel legal issue, or other specific reason, there is also a full court, or en banc, review of certain cases. Sometimes during this process there is an opportunity for an oral argument to the court, but most decision making is conducted through the filing of different written materials, such as briefs and transcripts. These include both civil and criminal cases. Many trial level verdicts are provided an undeniable "right" to an appeal at this court due to the type and style of case involved, such as criminal convictions. This court reviews the trial evidence, transcripts, and other information before issuing a written opinion that is available to the public. Merely having a case docketed in the Court of Appeals can take several months, if not years, depending on how busy the court is. The bulk of Georgia specific case law is derived from this court's opinions as they have the first opportunity to independently review the actions which took place in trial. Members are elected to their position and the support staff is made up of dozens of attorney's and assistants scattered across the state of Georgia with the central location being near the Capital in Atlanta. Superior Court This is the "court" most people think of when they have a "case." Every county in Georgia is part of a Superior Court circuit, which has original jurisdiction for virtually all criminal and civil matters in that county. All Divorces, Felony's, Adoptions, Equitable Actions, Real Estate Matters and many other legal remedies are the exclusive province of the local Superior Court. The Judges for these courts are elected in non-partisan races for four year terms,, although most are initially appointed by the Governor of Georgia when the preceding judge retires or quits. Superior Courts also function as the first line of review or appeal for decisions made by lower courts such as recorders, probate, traffic, state and magistrate courts. The Superior Court also plays an extensive role in managing and administrating lower courts as the Superior Court Judge's appoint lower court judges and manage their workload. Superior Courts also work closely with the local sheriff and law enforcement agencies as they are the originating source for the power to execute warrants and other legal devices needed in the daily activities of law enforcement and local government. State Court State Courts are not present in all circuits. In larger and busier circuits they have been created to handle certain types of cases under the supervision of state court judge's and the Superior Court. State Court Jurisdiction is limited to misdemeanor criminal accusation (DUI, Simple battery etc) and the vast majority of civil actions that do not include any equitable remedies. If the state court does not have jurisdiction over a matter than most likely the case will be dealt with in Superior Court. These courts, and judges, also handle a large amount of procedural and administrative activities such as warrant applications, probable cause hearings, and (relatively) straightforward civil matters such as contracts, collections, business disputes etc. As with Superior Court Judges, this position is filled by a non-partisan election every four years, although the initial assumption of the job is most commonly handled through an appointment by the Governor. Probate, Magistrate, Traffic and Specialty Courts Through special designation, local rules, ordinances and other political devices, there are several other types of courts present across our great state. Most of these courts are supervised by a local governmental body and handle local issues. Others work in conjunction with state mandated courts to ensure proper "due process" when the need arises. Every county handles these courts differently but in general: Magistrate Courts are staffed by locally appointed judges and handle the administrative duties of the State and Superior Courts of their jurisdiction. These matters CAN include, but are certainly not limited to, bond arraignments, first appearance, probable cause, plea's, warrant applications, civil hearings, family law hearings, emergency applications, Temporary Restraining Order (TRO or Protective Order) issues, special condition bonds, and a variety of other issues. A local attorney will be able to inform you of what their local magistrate court's handle and what duties still lay with the State or Superior Courts. Traffic or Municipal Courts are generally attached to a specific municipality or other local region. These court are staffed by both elected and appointed judges (depending on the location) and have very limited jurisdiction. Typically these court handle a variety of ordinance's such as zoning, housing, traffic and city issues along with having the ability to issue a variety of warrants. Generally speaking regarding these courts, if you are charged with an offense that could result in your imprisonment, you can opt to either deal with your issue in the local court or "bind" your case over to the more superior court of that jurisdiction. Depending on the strategy and circumstances, this can either be a very good or a very bad idea. Be sure to speak with a local attorney before you make any decision that could adversely affect your case or your rights. Special and "accountability" Courts: Some jurisdictions have also created specialty courts that have specific jurisdiction over specific issues. Examples of these include treatment Diversion Courts for Mental Health Issues, DUI courts, Business Courts, Family Courts, Juvenile Courts and Probate Courts. What issues you are dealing with will determine whether you are sent to one of these courts. They are also not as common outside of the Metro Atlanta area.

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