Legalese — Why Are There So Many Different Courts?

Walton County has, as of the last decennial census (2010) a population of 83,000. So why, people have asked me, does it seem like Walton County has approximately 83,000 different Courts?SWEARING-AT


What do all these different Courts do? How do I know which one to go to?


The answer to the last question, if you have a ticket or a subpoena or a summons, is to go to the Court written on the ticket or subpoena or summons. The rest of the answers are a little more complicated.

Walton County has several cities that have their own police forces within their borders: Monroe, Loganville, Social Circle, and Walnut Grove. Each of these cities has its own city ordinances – that is, laws that apply only in the city limits. These laws are usually ‘public order’ type laws – noise ordinances, pet-ownership rules, building codes, what you can or can’t do in a city park, that sort of thing. Any time you are accused of violating a city ordinance, or if you commit a traffic offense or minor misdemeanor within the city limits of one of those cities (such as shoplifting a small amount) you will appear in front of the Court specific to the city.

The vast majority of Walton County, however, is not within the city limits, and this is called “unincorporated Walton County.” If you are accused of committing a traffic offense in unincorporated Walton County, you go to Probate Court. If you are accused of committing a violation of a County Ordinance (which is like a City Ordinance, except it only applies to the parts of Walton County that aren’t in one of the cities) you go to Magistrate Court.

Clear as mud? Well, if you aren’t talking about a traffic offense or a minor misdemeanor, it gets even more complicated. Really, it is so complicated that experienced lawyers who figure this stuff out for a living mess it up from time to time.

Most ‘other’ stuff goes (or can go) to Superior Court. For example, Superior Court deals with everything divorce and divorce-related, personal injury cases, ‘you owe me money’ type suits, all crimes and misdemeanors (except County and City Ordinances), business litigation, and appeals from Magistrate and Probate Court.

Magistrate Court works in concert with the Superior Court for most criminal cases. Preliminary hearings, which are an initial determination to see if there is ‘probable cause’ to go forward with a criminal case are heard in Magistrate Court, and except for certain offenses, the initial bond amount is set there. The Magistrate Judge is generally the go-to guy for warrants to be issued, as well. Magistrate Court also can (if the parties choose) hear certain civil suits. (‘Civil’ suits is somewhat of a misnomer, as some of the most uncivilized behavior I have seen takes place under this guise, but that’s a rant for another day.) Civil suits in Magistrate Court are things that are non-criminal, and non-divorce or child custody related. Basically, when you sue someone for money or to do something. Except in Magistrate Court, what you are asking for has to be less than $15,000.00. Think of ‘The People’s Court’, only without commercial breaks, no wise-cracking bailiff and with more rules of evidence.

Probate Court, in addition to the traffic and county ordinance jurisdiction described above, also issues marriage licenses, pistol permits, and fireworks permits. (I can think of several ways in which these things might be related, but I don’t care to describe them here.) Probate Court deals with wills after people die, and when people die without a will, and who should (or should not) be in charge and whether they are doing the right thing if they are in charge. Also, guardianships and conservatorships and involuntary commitments (all too complicated to describe here).

Juvenile Court deals with delinquent acts (things that would be a crime if the person committing them were 17 or over), status offenses (things that are only offenses if you are a child – like running away from home and truancy), and deprived children (children who are without a legal guardian and/or children who are abused and/or children whose parents cannot provide for their ‘care, control, or education.’)

This is all, of course, a gross over-simplification. There are a lot of things that overlap, and a lot of things that I left out. There is an entire book of laws describing what the different Courts can and cannot do (Title 15 of the Official Code of Georgia) and approximately 80 zillion appellate cases where people have argued about whether or not they are in the right court and even the lawyers and judges can’t agree. But in broad terms, and for the obvious things, this should be of some help.

This article was written by a lawyer, but should not be considered legal advice in any way, shape, or form. It is written for general (and generally vague) informational purposes only. In order to properly evaluate your case, a lawyer must examine all the facts and circumstances that are particular and personal to your situation.

About Lori Duff 74 Articles
Lori is the author of the bestselling collection of humor essays, "Mismatched Shoes and Upside Down Pizza" currently available exclusively on Amazon. In order to finance her writing habit, she is a practicing lawyer with Jones & Duff, LLC. She is married to Mike Duff, who is a retired DeKalb County Public Safety Officer, and has two amazing children who make cameo embarrassing appearances in her blog posts and who attend Walton County Public Schools. Her legal column, "Legalese", is meant to de-mystify and humanize the Court system. When asked about her writing, Lori says, "Life is too short not to laugh at every available opportunity. My goal is to make myself laugh -- and hopefully you will laugh along with me."
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