Many levels of courts of limited jurisdiction in Georgia offer residents quick relief, usually without jury trials. These courts include municipal, probate, juvenile, and magistrate courts.
Magistrate courts are the first level courts in many counties, handling many small civil and criminal issues such as small claims issues under $15,000, landlord-tenant disputes and violations of county ordinances. Presiding over these courts are officials who may be elected or appointed by local governments. Magistrates may also sign arrest warrants. Jury trials are not held in magistrate courts.
Magistrate courts saw about 49,000 criminal and 533,000 civil cases in 2014. Of the criminal cases, almost 32,000 were related to violations of local ordinances. Of the civil cases, almost 267,000 were landlord-tenant disputes involving nonpayment of rent or eviction.
Probate courts are located in each county and handle wills and estates, guardianship issues, licensing of weapons, and marriage licenses. If there is no state court available within the county, the probate judge may hear cases involving traffic violations, misdemeanors, and fish and game citations. Judges are elected and are not required to be attorneys to qualify for the bench.
The courts saw about 212,000 criminal cases in 2014. On the civil side, probate courts saw approximately 12,400 guardianship cases, 72,000 marriage license applications and 158,000 firearms license applications.
Municipal courts are established in at least 350 cities and towns in Georgia to handle violations of local bylaws and ordinances, misdemeanor offenses like drug possession, and to approve warrants for arrest. Judges are often appointed by local mayors or governing bodies.
Across the state, municipal courts saw more than 1.6 million cases in 2014; of those, more than 1.3 million were traffic-related. Another 95,000 involved violations of local ordinances and 20,000 were related to marijuana possession or consumption.
Juvenile courts handle cases involving individuals 17 years old or younger, including criminal offenses, delinquency, and deprived or neglected children. Judges at this level may also approve marriages of juveniles and enlistment in the military. Child custody, termination of parental rights, and child support matters as a result of divorce have joint jurisdiction in juvenile and superior court.
In 2014 juvenile courts saw over 33,000 cases involving delinquency, considered terminating parental rights in another 3,500 cases, and weighed juvenile involvement in more than 3,500 traffic issues. There were more than 62,000 juvenile cases in the courts that year.
State courts' jurisdictions are limited to individual counties in Georgia. These courts may hold the first hearings in criminal cases, issue arrest warrants, and try civil cases. Judges are elected.
About 32,000 of the cases before state courts in 2014 were probation revocation issues, and 389,000 were traffic related. Another 770 cases were landlord-tenant disputes. Serious traffic issues were on the docket almost 26,000 times in state courts the same year.
Superior Courts are located in 49 circuits throughout the state, and judges may have jurisdiction in one or more counties. This is where all felony-level offenses are decided, and judges may correct errors made in courts of limited jurisdiction. Judges are elected for four-year terms.
In 2014, superior court saw 377,000 cases filed, including almost 11,000 serious felonies and almost 152,000 civil domestic cases. There were 25 death penalty cases. The clearance rate of criminal cases is around 75 percent, but civil clearance rates are closer to 80 percent.
Appellate court in Georgia is made up of 12 judges who sit on 3-person panels to review cases decided by lower courts. They may hear oral arguments from both sides but do not call witnesses or use a jury. A unique aspect of this court is that when a judge on a 3-person panel dissents, the case goes to a larger panel rather than issuing a 2-1 decision. There are several categories of cases over which the appellate court does not have jurisdiction, including wills, divorce and alimony, murder, land titles, and contested election results.
According to recent statistics, about 5,000 cases are appealed in Georgia each year. The court disposes of about 2,500 each year, including affirming the decisions of lower courts in 664 criminal and 552 civil cases, reversing 86 criminal and 230 civil decisions. Other cases may be withdrawn or an appeal concluded by other means, allowing the court to count as disposed about 1,000 criminal and 1,400 civil cases.
Georgia Supreme Court decides the constitutionality of lower court decisions. They also hear appeals of death penalty cases. The court's seven justices are elected. This court receives about 500 requests for hearings each session but recent numbers show it taking only about 40 of those. The judges also considered over 100 attorney discipline issues in the 2013-2014 record keeping period.
Sometimes not breaking the law is bigger news than breaking the law: in a case that was "'blowing up" television news in the summer of 2016, the lack of a law was the issue. A man who was convicted in lower court of violating a woman's privacy by videotaping up her skirt while she shopped in a grocery store had his case overturned by the state appeals court. The appeals court says that there's a gap in the law that does not address modern technology, that the woman was in a public place, and the current law does not stipulate the sort of videotaping that the defendant engaged in.
In 2015, the state Supreme Court threw out a lower court order that sought to force an accused murderer to take medication so he could stand trial. The 2010 case involves a man who killed four people at a trucking company. He was judged to be unable to stand trial due to mental health issues, so a lower court sought to force him to take anti-psychotic medication. The state Supreme Court threw out the order to medicate the man and remanded the case to lower court for other proceedings.