Going into a court building can be like walking into an alternate universe. Everyone has seen TV courtrooms. They show lots of wood paneling, grumpy judges and savvy lawyers. What popular media is less likely to show you is the behind-the-scenes administration where the bulk of the legal work gets done before anybody puts on a suit or stands in front of a jury.
If you walk into the Dekalb County Court building, you immediately realize there is more to it than a courtroom. Once you get through security, a maze of signs and arrows point you to different clerks and different courts. Some of them make sense. “Juvenile Court” is self-explanatory. Other terms that attorneys throw around are less obvious.
The first step to understanding why there are so many courts and clerks is to understand the difference between an appellate court and a trial court.
A trial court is the first court your case would go to, generally. Depending on your particular issue, your case may also go before an Administrative Law Judge rather than an entire jury. These courts are sometimes called the “lower courts”, because sometimes it is possible to appeal a decision they make to a higher court, called an appellate court. An appellate court is a court that reviews a decision that has been made by one of the lower courts. The appellate court has the authority to confirm or overturn a lower court decision. They can also remand, or send the case back to the lower court with additional instructions.
Every state has its own system of courts, each of them a little bit different. The Federal Government also has its own system. The State of Georgia has five lower courts: Magistrate, Probate, Juvenile, State and Superior, plus the local municipal courts. We have two appellate courts: the Supreme Court, and the Court of Appeals.
Each of the trial courts deal with a particular set of issues, called that court’s “jurisdiction”. For example, the Georgia Magistrate Court deals with, among other things, search and arrest warrants, and civil claims or lawsuits of up to $15,000. A civil suit over $15,000 will more likely go before the Superior Court or the State Court. Some of the lower court jurisdictions overlap. A traffic violation may be dealt with in municipal, state or probate court, depending on the particulars of the issue and the county. Most of the cases that we file are in the Georgia state courts for the county of residence of the defendant that we are suing. Even when we have the choice of filing suit in the superior court or the state court, I choose to file in state court because the docket of cases is more heavily represented by civil cases rather than criminal cases (as is the case in superior court).
Rob Fleming is familiar with the Georgia court system, and has a comfortable understanding of the different jurisdictions of both the appellate and trial courts. We can help you understand what to do and where to go.