Under the 1983 Constitution of Georgia, the judicial power of the state is vested in seven levels or classes of courts.
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 Georgia court system has two appellate-level courts: the Supreme Court of Georgia and the Court of Appeals of Georgia.
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 30 years old, be a resident of Georgia for at least three years, and have practiced law for at least seven years.
In 70 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 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. 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. A candidate for probate judge must be at least 25 years old, a high school graduate, and a county resident for at least two years preceding the election.
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Courts without Jury Trials
The jurisdiction of juvenile courts extends to delinquent children under the age of 17 and deprived 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 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 30 years old, 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 25 years old, 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.