Each county in the state of Georgia has several different courts. Each court has “jurisdiction” over certain types of cases. All counties in Georgia have a Superior Court, a Probate Court, a Magistrate Court, and a Juvenile Court. Most larger counties also have a State Court. In some cities there is also a Municipal Court, which handles certain types of civil and criminal cases and other duties. Some cities also have courts that can only handle certain types of cases, usually criminal bond hearings, traffic tickets, or city ordinance violation cases.
The Superior Courts of Georgia have jurisdiction over almost all types of cases, except matters that must be filed in Probate Court or Juvenile Court. Cases that can be filed in Superior Court include general civil cases and criminal cases. Cases that must be filed in Superior Court include divorces, adoptions, legitimation and paternity cases, child custody cases, family violence and stalking petitions, real estate or land cases, civil injunction cases, and other specific types of cases. The Superior Court has “exclusive” jurisdiction over these cases, meaning that such cases can only be filed in Superior Court.
Superior courts are governed by the Uniform Superior Court Rules, which have a lot of detailed and confusing rules, especially concerning certain types of case such as Divorce, Legitimation, Paternity, and Child Custody cases.
Judges of the Superior Courts are elected in a Judicial Circuit, which is a group of one or more Georgia counties. More often than not, Superior Court Judges are appointed by the Governor to fill an “unexpired term,” and the appointed Judge then stands for election when the term is up. The number of Superior Court Judges in a Judicial Circuit depends on the population and may be two to twenty. A Judge can live in any county in the Circuit, but in Circuits that consist of a very large county surrounded by smaller counties, most of the elected Judges may live in the large county and travel to hold court in the surrounding counties. The qualifications to become a Superior Court Judge are minimal, and can be found here. There is no legal requirement of competency, nor even a requirement that a candidate has handled a trial.
All Superior Courts can conduct Jury Trials. Appeals from Superior Court go to either the Georgia Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court of Georgia.
These courts handle the probate of wills and administration of estates of deceased persons, plus petitions in which a conservatorship of a minor or an incompetent person is sought, and have “exclusive jurisdiction” over these matters. Probate courts also issue marriage licenses and gun permits. In some counties, the Probate Court may have additional responsibilities, such as reviewing Family Violence or Stalking Petitions initially or hearing traffic tickets. The jurisdiction of Probate Court also varies according to the size of the county.
A Probate Court in a large county, known as an Article 6 Probate Court, can hear certain types of cases that can also be heard by the Superior Court and can also conduct a Jury Trial.
Probate courts are subject to the Uniform Probate Court Rules, which include a number of user-friendly forms for most petitions filed in Probate Court.
Probate Court Judges are elected. Article 6 Probate Court Judges must be licensed attorneys, but other Probate Court Judges are not required to be attorneys. The qualifications to become a Probate Court Judge can be found here. There is no legal requirement of knowledge or competency in the types of matters handled in Probate Court.
Appeals from Probate Courts generally go to the Superior Court of the County, but some appeals go to a higher court.
State Courts, which do not exist in every Georgia county, are authorized to handle civil cases in which money damages are sought, without any limit on the amount of damages, and misdemeanor criminal cases. In a county where there is a State Court, that court will likely handle misdemeanor criminal cases such as DUI, simple battery, or traffic ticket cases and the Superior Court will handle felony criminal cases. In counties where there is no State Court, these cases will be handled by the Superior Court since it also has jurisdiction over such cases.
State courts follow the Uniform State Court Rules, basically the same rules as Superior courts minus rules that apply to Domestic cases, which cannot be filed in a State Court.
State Court Judges are elected. They may be appointed by the Governor to fill and “unexpired term” of a retiring Judge, and then run for election at the end of that term. They must be licensed attorneys, and all qualifications to become a State Court Judge can be read here. There is no legal requirement that a State Court Judge have competency in trials or legal matters handled in State Court.
State Courts can conduct Jury Trials. Appeals from a State Court go to the Georgia Court of Appeals or Supreme Court.
These courts have jurisdiction only over cases arising in a city, and may handle a variety of cases, including possessory writs, peace bonds, bad check charges, some types of misdemeanor criminal cases, preliminary hearings, and money damage civil cases limited to some amount,typically $15,000. Generally a civil damages case that can be filed in a Municipal court can also be filed in a Superior or State Court.
Municipal courts have a separate set of rules called the Uniform Municipal Court Rules that govern how the court is conducted. These rules are less complicated than the Superior or State Court rules.
Municipal Court Judges are elected. They may be appointed to fill an “unexpired term” of a retiring Judge, and then run for election at the end of that term. They must be licensed attorneys, but the few additional qualifications to become a Municipal Court Judge can be read here. There is no legal requirement that a Municipal Court Judge have competency in trials or legal matters handled in the Court.
Municipal Courts can conduct Jury Trials, although the number of jurors is 6, rather than 12 as applies in other Jury Trial Courts. Appeals from a Municipal Court go to different courts depending the type of case.
Every county has this court, which has simplified rules that make it easier for individuals to handle their cases without a lawyer. Cases are heard quickly because the Magistrate Court rules don’t allow “discovery.” There is a limitation on the amount of money damages that can be sought. A Magistrate Judge is not required to have a law degree.
A Magistrate Court cannot conduct a Jury Trial. Appeals from a Magistrate Court go to the Superior Court in the County for a brand new trial de novo.
Magistrate Court Judges are elected, and are not required to be attorneys. They need only have a high school education. The qualifications to become a Magistrate Court Judge are here.
This is a specialized court that addresses matters concerning minor children, such as certain types of child custody matters, criminal charges against minors (with exceptions), petitions to terminate parental rights, and petitions brought by parents against their “unruly” children. There is no right to a jury trial.
Not all counties have a separate Juvenile Court. In small counties, a Superior Court Judge may conduct Juvenile Court proceedings.
The Uniform Juvenile Court Rules apply to Juvenile Court. More rules governing Juvenile courts are found in the statutes that authorize Juvenile Court and the procedures and cases that can be handled by a Juvenile Court.
Juvenile Court Judges are appointed by the Judges of the Superior Court Circuit in which the Juvenile Court is located. They must be licensed attorneys. Their qualifications can be read here.
A Juvenile Court cannot conduct a Jury Trial. Appeals from Juvenile Court go to the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court depending on the type of case or matter.
Selection of a Court
The duties of these courts may vary from county to county, so always check in your county to determine what type of cases go where. If a case is brought against you, the paperwork will state the court in which the case has been filed. If you are filing a case, the court in which it can be filed will be dictated by the type of case. If the case is for damages, the amount of damages sought will dictate whether the case can be brought in a Municipal or the Magistrate Court, since these courts have a limit on money damages.
Jury Trials in Georgia
In courts that can conduct jury trials, parties have a right to a jury trial in most but not all types of cases. Child Custody matters, whether arising in a Divorce, Legitimation, or Paternity case or some other Child Custody case, can only be decided by a Judge. Because of this, it is quite possible that there may be 2 separate trials in such cases, one by a Judge to determine Child Custody and a second trial in front of a Jury to determine the remaining issues. In some types of cases, the issues that may be presented to a Jury are limited. In Superior and State courts, juries consist of 12 jurors.
Civil Practice in Georgia
Like all states and the federal government, Georgia has a “Civil Practice Act” that governs all aspects of all civil cases in courts that are subject to the Act, regardless of the type of case. These rules are detailed. The rules allow certain procedures that lawyers understand and utilize, such as “Discovery,” which allows parties to seek, formally, information from the opposing party(yes), conduct Depositions, and obtain documents and other items, even from people, businesses, banks, or others who are not parties in the case, and “Summary Judgment,” which allows lawyers to ask a Judge to throw out a case for legal reasons or because the facts don’t support the case. Cases filed in Superior, State, and municipal courts are subject to these rules.
Cases filed in a Superior, State, or Municipal Court must be filed and handled following the provisions of the Georgia Civil Practice Act, plus the specific Uniform Rules that govern each of these courts.
As mentioned above, Magistrate Court was designed to be “user friendly,” and though it too has rules, these rules are simpler and much less complicated. The Georgia Civil Practice Act does not apply.
Federal Court System in Georgia
In addition to Georgia Courts, the United States has a number of Federal District Courts in Georgia. Some types of cases, such as certain damages cases, can be filed in these courts if certain circumstances are applicable. Some types of cases must be filed in a Federal District Court and some cases filed in a Georgia state court can be “removed” or transferred to a Federal District Court.
The Federal Court system is extremely complicated, with its own Civil Practice Act plus detailed rules that mandate how cases are filed and handled.