Liberty County's Judicial System

The following topics are covered in this section.
Click on the appropriate topic title for more information.
Historical Background State Court
Superior Court Magistrate Court
Juvenile Court F. Barry Wilkes
Clerk of Courts


HISTORICAL INFORMATION

The Georgia Constitution of 1798 created the justice of peace court, the inferior court and the superior court. A justice of peace court was provided in each community for the purpose of trying minor civil cases. The inferior court--a court made up of five justices of the peace for a county--was established to try any civil case except those involving title to land. The inferior court had jurisdiction over county business matters, such as care of the poor, maintenance of jails, building of roads, and maintaining a register of wills. A court of the ordinary was created in 1851 for registering wills, granting letters of administration for the estates of deceased persons and issuing marriage licenses. The "ordinary" was given the responsibility of managing county business and, thus, became the chief administrative officer for county government. In 1868, the inferior courts were abolished, and all of their powers were given to the courts of ordinary, which became the office of the probate court in 1983, when the Constitution was amended. The Constitution of 1877 created county commissioners "in any counties that require them." Gradually county commissioners assumed the responsibilities that they have today--that is, levying county taxes, construction of county roads, and other county matters.

The superior court was established under the Constitution of 1798 as the highest court in the state. Georgia's first constitution (1777) established a superior court of final jurisdiction for each county. The state was divided into eight counties then. Originally there was one chief justice who traveled from county to county holding court. In 1789, the state was divided into two judicial districts, the Eastern District and the Western District. Liberty County was placed in the Eastern District until 1897, when it was placed in the Atlantic Judicial Circuit, in which it currently remains. There were two judges appointed by the legislature, one for each district. The judges "rode circuit," holding court in each county at least twice a year.

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SUPERIOR COURT

Throughout Georgia's history, the superior court has been the court in which serious criminal cases and more important civil cases have been tried. Until 1845, their decisions were final. Since that date, they have been subject to review by appellate (appeals) courts in Georgia and the United States Supreme Court.

The superior court is Georgia's general jurisdiction trial court. It has exclusive constitutional authority to preside over felony cases (except those involving juvenile offenders, in which jurisdiction is shared with the juvenile court) and cases regarding title to land, divorce and equity. The superior court also has exclusive jurisdiction in such matters as declatory judgments, habeas corpus, mandamus, quo warranto, and prohibition.

The superior court may exercise concurrent jurisdiction over other cases with the limited jurisdiction courts located in the same county (state court, magistrate court, and probate court). The superior courts are authorized to correct errors made by lower courts by issuing writs of certiorari, and for some lower courts (municipal court and recorder's court), the right to direct review by the superior court applies.

Georgia is divided into 45 superior court judicial circuits (see attachment ), with at least one judge in each. The circuits in metropolitan areas have several judges. In the Atlanta Judicial Circuit in 1994, there were 15 superior court judges. Currently there are 146 superior court judges in Georgia's 159 counties. Liberty County shares four superior court judges with the other five counties of the Atlantic Judicial Circuit (Bryan, Evans, Long, McIntosh, and Tattnall counties). They are: David L. Cavender (Darien), A. "Ronnie" Rahn III (Reidsville), Robert L. Russell (Darien) and Charles P. Rose, Jr. (Hinesville). James E. Findley (Reidsville) and John R. Harvey (Pembroke) serve as senior superior court judges.

Superior court judges are elected to four-year terms in non-partisan, circuit-wide races. To qualify as a superior court judge, a candidate must be at least 30 years old, a citizen of Georgia for at least three years and have been authorized to practice law for at least seven years. Senior superior court judges, who have retired from the bench and who have attained senior status, may hear cases in any circuit at the request of the local judges or an administrative judge.

The Clerk of Superior Court, F. Barry Wilkes, is elected and serves a four-year term and has served the citizens of Liberty County since 1983.

The superior court is a court of record, meaning that all documents must be filed in court. The clerk of the superior court is statutorily designated as the receiver and custodian of the records of the superior court. A constitutional, county officer, the clerk is statutorily responsible for all moneys paid into the the court; the safekeeping, preservation, and management of all documents, orders and decrees of the court; jury management; and provides management and clerical support for the court. The clerk of superior court also is the register of real and personal property records, the clerk of the jury commission and, serves as clerk of three other other courts (juvenile court, state court and magistrate court). The Clerk of Liberty Superior Court serves as the clerk of juvenile court, magistrate court, and state court. The Office of the Clerk of Superior Court is located in Suite 1200 of the Liberty County Justice Center at 201 South Main Street, Hinesville, Georgia. Directions for driving to the Justice Center are available at www.libertyco.com/local/LibertyMap.html.

A district attorney is elected for each judicial circuit of the state. The district attorney is the prosecutor in felony criminal matters. J. Thomas Durden is the district attorney for the Atlantic Judicial Circuit, which includes the Superior Court of Liberty County. Other counties in the circuit are Bryan, Evans, Long, McIntosh and Tattnall.. The district attorney serves as the legal advisor to the grand jury, which is required to hear evidence in criminal matters to determine if a "true bill" or "no bill" should be returned on criminal indictments. If the grand jury returns a true bill of indictment, the accused is bound over for trial in the matter. A no bill of indictment is a dismissal of charges against the accused. The district attorney also provides legal counsel to the Atlantic Judicial Circuit Child Support Recovery Unit and to the juvenile courts of the circuit. The district attorney's office is located on E.G. Miles Parkway (Highway 196 West).

The sheriff of Liberty County, Steve Sikes, is required by statute to provide the following services for the superior court: (1) security; (2) to serve all papers, process, and summonses; (3) to conduct all sales of property ordered by the court; (4) to incarcerate all defendants awaiting trial (who have not been granted bail) and to produce them at court whenever required by court order; and (5) to attend all sessions of court when required to do so. Currently there are three deputy sheriffs who serve papers for the superior court. The sheriff is elected in the same manner as the clerk of superior court for a four-year term.

Four superior court judges preside in the Superior Court of Liberty County. Like the district attorney, the superior court judges also serve the five other counties of the circuit. The court's caseload is divided into two divisions, civil and criminal, with a case assignment system used in the civil division for equally distributing the civil caseload to the four judges. Each division requires and provides for jury trials in which jurors are selected and impaneled to decide issues between parties. Twelve-person juries are required for all cases, unless the parties agree to proceed with as few as eleven jurors.

Jury lists are compiled by the jury commission of the county. The jury commission is composed of six persons who are appointed for six-year terms by the chief judge of the circuit. Jury commissioners serve staggered terms, with two commissioners rotating off the commission each year.

Federal and Georgia laws require that the composition of the jury pool of the county must reflect no greater than five percent statistical disparity--by race and sex--than what actually exists in the county, which is determined by the most recent decennial census of the county. That means that there can not be greater than five percent disparity between the percentage of female, males, blacks and white in the county and the corresponding percentage for each category in the jury pool. The clerk of superior court is required by statute to maintain the jury lists of the county. A court rule of the circuit requires the clerk to manage juries and confers upon the clerk the power to defer and excuse jurors selected for jury duty.

All jurors, once summoned for jury duty, are required to serve. The only reasons for excusal from jury service provided for by law are:

(1) death;
(2) a permanent physical or mental disability (in which case an affidavit must be provided by a medical doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist);
(3) a felony conviction; and
(4) residency (that is, the juror no longer resides in the county).

A juror may deferred for one term of court if the juror is:

(1) temporarily physically or mentally unable to serve (an affidavit from a medical doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist must be provided);
(2) the sole provider of care for a child or children under the age of five and for whom no one else is available to provide such care;
(3) the provider of care for an ill or disabled family member; or
(4) employed in a job necessary to the public well-being (such as a police officer, medical doctor, or nurse) and no one is available on the date the juror has been summoned for court to take the juror's place.

An adjunct of the superior court is the State Probation Office, a division of the Georgia Department of Offender Rehabilitation. The probation office is part of circuit-wide probation office. Probation officers employed by the department are required by law to supervise any person convicted of a felony offense in which a sentence of probation is adjudged. The chief probation officer is appointed by the chief judge of the circuit.

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JUVENILE COURT

The purpose of Georgia's juvenile courts is to protect the well-being of children, to provide guidance and control conducive to a child's welfare and the best interests of the state, and to secure as nearly as possible care equivalent to parental care for a child removed from the home. All juvenile court proceedings are closed to the public and all files pertaining to cases are confidential.

The juvenile court has exclusive jurisdiction over cases involving delinquent and unruly children under the age of 17, and deprived children under the age of 18. Juvenile courts have concurrent jurisdiction with the superior courts in cases involving capital felonies, custody and child support cases, and in proceedings conducted to terminate parental rights. The superior court has authority to preside over adoption proceedings. These courts administer supervision and probation cases for those persons under 21 years of age who were sentenced for a delinquent offense committed before age 17. Additionally, the juvenile court has jurisdiction over those cases involving enlistment in the military services and consent to marriage for minors and cases that come under the Interstate Compact on Juveniles.

Cases appealed from the juvenile courts may be heard by the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court, depending the specific matter.

Judges must be at least 30 years old, have practiced law for five years and have lived in Georgia for three years. Full-time judges can not practice law while holding office. Linnie Darden serves as judge of Liberty Juvenile Court.

The clerk of superior court, F. Barry Wilkes, and the sheriff of Liberty County, Steve Sikes, serve the juvenile court in the same manner for the superior court and state court.

Probation of juvenile offenders is supervised by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (formerly Court Services). Wyonnie Mack is head of the local department.

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STATE COURT

A 1970 legislative act established Georgia's state court system by designating certain countywide courts as courts of limited jurisdiction. State courts exercise jurisdiction over all misdemeanor violations, including traffic cases, and all civil actions, regardless of the amount claimed, unless the superior court has exclusive jurisdiction (e.g., divorce, title to land, child custody, adoption, and legitimization).

State courts are authorized by statute to hold hearings regarding applications for and issuance of search and arrest warrants and to hold preliminary hearings. These courts may also punish contempt by imposing a fine and/or a jail sentence. By constitutional provision, the state courts have the authority to review lower court decisions, if the power is provided by statute.

State court judges may practice part-time, except in their own courts. They are elected to four-year terms in non-partisan, countywide elections. Candidates must be 25 years old, have practiced law for at least five years, and have lived in the county for at least three years. State court judges can serve as superior court judges upon appointment by the chief judge of the superior court.

Liberty State Court was created in 1916. It was formerly the City Court of Hinesville. Leon M. Braun, Jr., is the judge of Liberty State Court. Jeffery N. Osteen., is the solicitor of the court. The solicitor is the prosecutor, serving in the same manner as the district attorney in superior court.

The Clerk of Superior Court, F. Barry Wilkes, serves as the clerk of Liberty State Court. The sheriff of Liberty County, Steve Sikes, serves as the law enforcement officer for the state court. He and his deputy sheriffs are responsible for performing the same duties and responsibilities enumerated for Liberty Superior Court.

A private probation company, Misdemeanor Probation Services, a division of Peach State Services, Inc., is under contract to Liberty State Court to provide misdemeanor probation services. The company is statutorily responsible for supervising misdemeanants who have been sentenced to probation for a misdemeanor offenses.

When required, jury trials may be held for civil and criminal matters. By law, six-person jury panels are provided for in state court.

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MAGISTRATE COURT

The old justice of the peace and small claims courts were replaced by the magistrate court through constitutional revisions in 1983. A chief magistrate, who may be assisted by one or more magistrates, presides over the 159 magistrate courts in the state.

Magistrate jurisdiction encompasses civil trials for claims of $15,000 or less; issuing distress warrants and dispossessory writs; trials of county ordinance violations; trials for misdemeanor bad check laws; holding preliminary hearings; and issuing summonses, arrest warrants and search warrants.

Magistrates may grant bail in cases for which the setting of bail is not exclusively reserved for a judge of another court, administer oaths and issue subpoenas, as well as sentence and fine for contempt up to 10 days imprisonment and/or $200.

No jury trials are held in magistrate court, and cases involving county ordinance violations in which defendants submit a written request for a jury trial are removed to superior or state court.

In addition to hearing cases, duties of the chief magistrate include assignment of cases, setting of court sessions, appointment of magistrates (with the consent of superior court judges) and deciding disputes among other magistrates. The number of magistrates in addition to the chief magistrate is set by majority vote of the superior court judges.

Chief magistrates are either appointed or elected in partisan, countywide elections to serve for a term of four years. Terms for other magistrates run concurrently with that of the chief magistrate who appointed them. The authority to appoint a replacement if a vacancy occurs in the office of chief magistrate usually resides with the superior court judges of the circuit.

To qualify for office, persons must reside in the county for at least one year preceding their term of office, be 26 years of age, and have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Judges of other limited jurisdiction courts may also serve in the capacity of magistrate in the same county.

The chief magistrate of Liberty Magistrate Court is Melinda Anderson. The associate magistrates are Angie Rogers, Jimmy Bomar, Gerald Morris and Leroy Strickland.

The clerk of superior court, F. Barry Wilkes, and the sheriff of Liberty County, Steve Sikes, serve the magistrate court in the same manner as they do in superior court.

To electronically file civil actions in magistrate court, visit our Magistrate Court E-Filing Site.

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