Editor's note: You’ll see plenty of judges on your ballot when you vote–but who are they? News outlets tend to ignore judges up for (re)election, because 1) Georgia’s judicial races are nonpartisan and 2) incumbents generally get re-elected.

For regular people, there’s not much information out there for individual candidates on how fairly they decide cases or how quickly they move them. This guide provides the basics on Georgia’s judges–and resources for assessing your local one. In future elections, we hope to provide even more information about the judicial candidates.

If you’ve ever gotten a traffic ticket, divorced, ended up in court over child support, or served as executor for a will, you’ve invariably dealt with a judge.

Judges rule our lives, yet they get little more than a glance and a flick of a pen on the ballot because few voters know much about them or what they actually do. In fact, about one in four American voters bypass judicial races altogether, according to Choose Your Judges, a nonpartisan website that informs voters about judicial elections. 

That’s why so many judges spend a loooong time on the bench. For instance, of the 16 judicial races on Fulton County’s sample ballot, 14 judges are incumbents running unopposed.

But whom you elect as your superior, state, magistrate or probate court judge can be far more critical to your everyday life than the top-billed races. They have more impact–just ask any of the 236,000 different people booked into local jails in Georgia annually.

So why not go to the poll armed with information about the candidates you select as judges? Atlanta Civic Circle is here to help with this explainer.

Georgia’s judicial system 

Georgia’s judicial branch interprets our state laws to, ideally, administer justice. All judicial elections in Georgia are nonpartisan. Our state judicial system has two appellate-level courts, where you can appeal a lower court’s decision. They are the Supreme Court of Georgia and Court of Appeals of Georgia.  

Georgia has five types of trial-level courts: superior, state, magistrate, probate, and juvenile. 

–Judges for superior and state courts serve a four-year term, and they must have at least seven years of practicing law under their belts. 

Probate court judges also serve a four-year term, but in smaller counties, they don’t have to be lawyers. For counties with populations over 96,000, they must have practiced law for at least seven years. 

Magistrate court judges do not have to be lawyers and their terms vary. They do have to be at least 25 years old with a high-school diploma. 

–You won’t see juvenile court judge candidates on your ballot, because they aren’t elected, except in Floyd County. Otherwise, juvenile judges are appointed by the superior court judges in their county for a four-year term. They must have at least five years of experience as lawyers.   

The state’s judicial system is overseen by the Judicial Council. Its job is to develop policies for administering and improving state courts. The Council is staffed by employees of the Administrative Office of the Courts and is led by the Georgia Supreme Court’s chief justice (the council’s chairperson) and presiding justice (the council’s vice-chairperson). 

Each court’s duties

Superior courts are general trial courts for Georgia’s 49 judicial circuits, which each cover one or more counties. (The Atlanta Judicial Circuit, for example, is just Fulton County.) They handle civil and high-level criminal cases, as well as divorces, child custody and child support, and disputes over land titles. Superior courts handle all felony-level criminal cases involving jury trials, including death penalty cases. They can also handle misdemeanors, especially in smaller counties. 

State courts are the highest level of trial court for each county, but not every county has one. They hear a broad range of civil cases, including business disputes, as well as criminal misdemeanor cases.  

Probate courts administer wills and estates; appoint and oversee guardians and conservators; and issue marriage and gun-carry licenses. In counties with no state court, probate courts may hear traffic offenses and other misdemeanors, as well as violations of state game and fish laws Some probate judges serve as the county’s Supervisor of Elections.

Juvenile courts handle a broad range of cases affecting children. These include child-deprivation cases, such as removing a child from their family and into foster care, and delinquency cases, such as unruly behavior or truancy. 

Magistrate courts are often called “The People’s Court” because they help citizens to represent themselves without an attorney in disputes with other people. Each of Georgia’s 159 counties has a magistrate court, and they can be quicker, more affordable and efficient for cases involving $15,000 or less. These courts don’t hold jury trials.

Municipal courts are city-level courts. Often, they are the only exposure people have to the judicial system. (Think traffic court.) These are the busiest courts in Georgia, with more than 380 judges managing more than 1.2 million cases a year.

What to look for in a judge

Judges for every court are responsible for making sure the law is followed and carried out for every case. The American Bar Association recommends eight criteria for evaluating judges for state courts: integrity, legal knowledge and ability, professional experience, judicial temperament, diligence, health, financial responsibility, and public service.

That’s a broad slate of factors to slog through. Choose Your Judges offers a more practical approach. It suggests you look at a candidate’s: 

  • Educational and professional background. How long has a candidate already served in the position? How long has the person practiced law? Did they work in a public defender’s office or a big law firm? The last question may be the most revealing in telling a voter how that candidate assesses cases.
  • Endorsements by neutral organizations. Newspapers and state or local bar associations make more neutral assessments.
  • Endorsements by policy-specific groups. These groups are more issues-oriented. Chambers of commerce tend to be pro-business and thus endorse Republican candidates, while labor groups tend to lean toward Democratic candidates.
  • Judicial philosophy. Political labels aren’t really helpful in understanding how judges decide cases. Instead, consider whether the candidate tends to interpret the law to benefit a plaintiff who seeks damages against large companies, or does the candidate tend to protect corporations from such lawsuits? Lawyers and law schools use the term “textualist” to describe judges who try to stick to the literal language of a statute. By contrast, other judges may interpret a law more broadly to encompass newer issues that arise. Both types of judges can be called “activists,” depending on one’s perspective. 
  • Prior case decisions. Judges don’t readily tell the public how they vote in elections, but they do leave a track record. What kind of history do they have deciding environmental cases, for example–or whatever issues matter to you? See how Choose Your Judges makes its recommendations.

Just so you know

How Georgia judges are elected: Nonpartisan elections

Terms for state supreme court justices: 6 years

Number of justices on the state supreme court: 9

Overall win rate for incumbents in U.S. state supreme court races (2008-2020): 93%

Incumbent win rate in Georgia (2008-2020): 100%

Sources: Choose Your Judges, Ballotpedia.

Resources

Want to know more about Georgia’s judicial system and its races? Check Ballotpedia here for information on individual judges.

Here is a guide to Georgia’s judicial branch that the state Judicial Council has prepared to orient new legislators. 

Check out the Georgia Administrative Office of the Court’s website here. It supports state, probate, magistrate, and municipal courts.

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