Supreme Court Brochure

Current Members of the Supreme Court

HUGH P. THOMPSON, Chief Justice
P. HARRIS HINES, Presiding Justice
ROBERT BENHAM, Justice
CAROL W. HUNSTEIN, Justice
HAROLD D. MELTON, Justice
DAVID E. NAHMIAS, Justice
KEITH R. BLACKWELL, Justice
THERESE S. BARNES, Clerk
JEAN RUSKELL, Reporter of Decisions

THE SUPREME COURT OF GEORGIA

A HISTORY

Although Georgia's constitution was amended in 1835 to authorize a Supreme Court, Acts of 1835, p. 49, it was not until 1845 that the Legislature established an appellate court. Acts of 1845, p.18. Prior to 1845 a new trial before a new jury in the local court was the only procedure available for the correction of judicial error.

Before 1845 the decisions rendered in the state's courts were characterized by a lack of uniformity. In 1828 Governor John Forsyth, later Secretary of State under both Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, lamented:

Under the present arrangement of eight Judges of the Superior Court, each confined to the circuit for which he was elected, supreme in his authority, not bound by the decisions of his predecessors or contemporaries, and not always by his own, while these will be in their turn disregarded by his successor, there can neither be uniformity nor certainty in the laws for the security of the rights of persons or property. . . The confusion produced by contemporary contradictory decisions, everyday increases - property is held and recovered in one part, and lost in another part of the state under like circumstances - rights are asserted and maintained in one circuit, and denied in another, in analogous cases." Georgia House Journal, 1828, p. 15.

In his message to the General Assembly in 1845, Governor George W. Crawford, as had every governor since 1824, urged the formation of the Supreme Court:

"Eleven Judges, each supreme in his authority and capable of being appealed from himself only to himself, cannot presume to decide with uniformity. Without uniformity law itself is a chance and has been aptly called a miserable servitude. " Georgia Senate Journal, 1845,p. 11.

Prior to 1801 the judges of Georgia's superior courts met annually to make rules and reserve points of law which might require argument and a uniform opinion. An act of 1801, however, expressly repealed that portion of the Judiciary Act of 1799 which provided for this procedure and required

"[T]hat all points reserved for argument, and now waiting a decision at the seat of government, be and the same are hereby directed to be sent back to the respective counties from whence they have been sent, and there decided by the presiding Judge." Clayton's Digest, p. 38.

Upon the repeal of this procedure for resolving difficult points of law, the judges of the various superior courts began the practice of informally conferring at the annual convention for the making of rules. But the General Assembly sought by resolution to halt even this practice after three superior court judges met "pretending to be in legal Convention" and declared certain acts of the Legislature unconstitutional and void. Georgia House Journal, 1815, pp. 47-50. The apparent hostility of Georgians toward appellate courts in general may have stemmed both from their perceived mistreatment at the hands of the United States Supreme Court in the early landmark case of Chisolm v. Georgia, 2 Dall. 419 (1793), which resulted in the eleventh amendment to the United States Constitution, and the ongoing battle between the Supreme Court and governors of Georgia over the Cherokee Indians. Continued animosity between the Legislature and the superior court judges as well as concern about the expense and delay of litigation were also reasons for Georgia's delay in instituting an appellate court. Almand, "The Supreme Court of Georgia: An Account of Its Delayed Birth," 6 Ga. Bar Journal, p. 95.

Once the bill implementing Georgia's Supreme Court was passed in 1846, enthusiasm soon replaced early skepticism. Although it had been predicted that within ten years the Court would decide all questions of law and thus no longer be necessary, Govenor George W. Crawford, in his annual message to the Legislature in 1847, remarked:

"The Supreme Court, whose establishment was so long of questionable utility, in the opinion of several Legislatures, has realized to the fullest extent the expectations of its most steadfast advocates. Its usefulness has proven its necessity. It is reforming the irregularities necessarily incident to the old system of judicature, by impressing the stamp of uniformity on all its decisions." Georgia Senate Journal, 1847, p. 16.

The General Assembly's last reservations had apparently vanished by 1858 when an act was passed providing that the decisions of the Court have the force of law: ''

[F]rom and after the passage of this act the decisions of the Supreme Court of this State . . . shall not be reversed, overruled or changed; but the same is hereby declared to be, and shall be considered, regarded and observed by all the Courts of this State, as the law of this State, when it has not been changed by legislative enactment, as fully, and to have the same effect, as if the same had been enacted in terms by the General Assembly. Acts of 1858, pp. 74-75.

The Supreme Court's first session was held at Talbotton, Georgia, on January 26,1846. The first three judges chosen by the General Assembly to serve on the Court were Joseph Henry Lumpkin of Athens, Eugenius A. Nisbet of Macon, and Hiram Warner of Greenville. Their salaries were set at $2500.00 per year.

At the time of the creation of the Supreme Court, Georgia's population stood at approximately 800,000. The state was divided into eleven superior court circuits, and the judges of the Supreme Court travelled the state, holding court in nine different localities during the course of the year. Travel, at each judge's own expense, amounted to over 1,000 miles per year, only 300 of which were covered by railroad. Cases were decided at the term submitted; decisions were handed down from the bench orally and only later reduced to writing. The hardships involved in riding the circuit lasted until shortly after the Civil War when the Constitution of 1865 provided that the Court would sit at the seat of government.

The Constitution was amended in 1896 to provide for the addition of three justices to the Court and to provide that justices and the chief justice would be elected by the people. A seventh justice was added by the Constitution of 1945 and since that time the composition of the Court has remained the same.


THE COURT'S JURISDICTION

The 1983 State Constitution provides that the Supreme Court shall be a court of review and shall exercise exclusive appellate jurisdiction in the following cases:

EXCLUSIVE APPELLATE JURISDICTION

  • all cases involving the construction of a treaty or of the Constitution of the State of Georgia or of the United States and all cases in which the constitutionality of a law, ordinance or constitutional provision has been drawn in question; and
  • all cases of election contest.

GENERAL APPELLATE JURISDICTION

  • cases involving title to land;
  • all equity cases;
  • all cases involving wills;
  • all habeas corpus cases;
  • all cases involving extraordinary remedies;
  • all divorce and alimony cases;
  • all cases certified to it by the Court of Appeals, and
  • all cases in which a sentence of death was imposed or could be imposed.

Additionally, the Supreme Court may answer any question of law from any state or federal appellate court and may review by certiorari cases in the Court of Appeals which are of gravity or great public importance.

The Supreme Court has power to make such orders as are necessary in aid of its jurisdiction or to protect or effectuate its judgments.


OFFICERS OF THE COURT

Clerk. The clerk is appointed by the Court for a term of six years "unless removed for incapacity, improper conduct or neglect of duties." The duties of the clerk are specified by statute and the Rules of the Court. The clerk is the administrative officer of the Court, has charge of the Court's records and keeps its Minutes. The clerk may appoint one or more deputies with the approval of the Court.

Law Assistants. The justices are authorized to appoint law assistants to serve at their pleasure. They must be duly qualified attorneys, licensed to practice law in the State, but they are not permitted to practice while employed by the Court. Their duties are to assist the justices in the research and preparation of opinions for decision by the Court.

Reporter. The reporter of the published opinions of the Court is appointed by the Supreme Court. He serves as the official reporter of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. He has the authority to appoint an assistant.

Salaries of all Court employees are fixed by the Court

OPERATION OF THE COURT

The Court operates under Rules adopted by it for its administration and for the guidance of the bar and litigants.

These Rules are published in the official reports of the Court and printed copies are available upon request to the clerk.

For the purpose of hearing oral argument the Court sits each month, except August and December. The clerk prepares the calendar of cases to be argued or submitted. The cases are assigned in rotation to the justices for preparation of opinions and decisions of the whole Court.

When a justice prepares an opinion it is circulated for study to the other justices and, after discussion en banc, is either adopted or rejected by a majority. If a justice is unable to serve in a particular case, or is disqualified, a substitute judge may be designated by the Court to serve.


APPENDIX

CHIEF JUSTICES AND JUSTICES, 1845 - Present

Chief Justices

Chronological List of those who have served on the Court.

Since its creation in 1845, 92 justices have served on the Court. Thirty have served as chief justice. Four of the latter were not members of the Court at the time of their election or appointment as chief justice. Names in italics are the present members of the Court.

J.H. Lumpkin
1863 - 1867

Hiram Warner
1867-1868 & 1872-1880

Jos. E. Brown
1868 - 1870

O.A. Lochrane
1871 - 1872

James Jackson
1880 - 1887

Logan E. Bleckley
1887 - 1894

T. J. Simmons
1894 - 1905

W. H. Fish
1905 - 1923

Richard B. Russell
1923 - 1938

Charles S. Reid
1938 - 1943

R. C. Bell
1943 - 1946

W. F. Jenkins
1946 - 1948

W. H. Duckworth
1948 - 1969

Bond Almand
1969 - 1972

Carlton Mobley
1972 - 1974

Benning M. Grice
1974 - 1975

H. E. Nichols
1975 - 1980

Hiram K. Undercofler
1980 - 1980

Robert H. Jordan
1980 - 1982

Harold N. Hill, Jr.
1982 - 1986

Thomas O. Marshall
1986 - 1989

Harold G. Clarke
1990 - 1992

Charles L. Weltner
1992 - 1992

Harold G. Clarke
1992 - 1994

Willis B. Hunt, Jr.
1994 - 1995

Robert Benham
1995 - 2001

Norman S. Fletcher
2001 - 2005

Leah Ward Sears
2005 - 2009

Carol W. Hunstein
2009 - 2012

George H. Carley
2012 - 2012

Carol W. Hunstein
2012 - 2013

Hugh P .Thompson
2013


Associate Justices

Jos. H. Lumpkin
1845 - 1863

Hiram Warner
1845-1865 & 1868- 1872

E. A. Nisbet
1845 - 1853

E. A. Starnes
1853 - 1855

H. L. Benning
1853 - 1859

C. J. McDonald
1855 - 1859

Linton Stephens
1859 - 1860

Richard F. Lyon
1859 - 1865

C. J. Jenkins
1860 - 1866

D. A. Walker
1866 - 1868

I. L. Harris
1866 - 1868

H. K. McCay
1868 - 1875

W. W. Montgomery
1872 - 1873

R. P. Trippe
1873 - 1875

Logan E. Bleckley
1875 - 1880

James Jackson
1875 - 1880

M. J. Crawford
1880 - 1883

W. A. Hawkins
1880 - 1880

Alex M. Speer
1880 - 1882

Samuel Hall
1882 - 1887

M. H. Blandford
1883 - 1890

T. J. Simmons
1887 - 1894

Samuel Lumpkin
1891 - 1903

S. R. Atkinson
1894 - 1897

Wm. A. Little
1897 - 1903

Wm. H. Fish
1897 - 1905

Andrew J. Cobb
1897 - 1907

Henry T. Lewis
1897 - 1902

Samuel B. Adams
1902 - 1902

John S. Candler
1902 - 1906

Jos. R. Lamar
1903 - 1905

Henry C. Turner
1903 - 1904

Beverly D. Evans
1904 - 1917

Marcus W. Beck
1903 - 1937

Joseph H. Lumpkin,II
1905 - 1916

Samuel C. Atkinson
1906 - 1942

Horace Holden
1907 - 1911

H. Warner Hill
1911 - 1934

S. Price Gilbert
1916 - 1937

Walter F. George
1917 - 1922

James K. Hines
1922 - 1932

R. C. Bell
1932-1938 & 1946-1949

John B. Hutcheson
1934 - 1938

W. Frank Jenkins
1937 - 1948

Warren Grice
1937 - 1945

W. Henry Duckworth
1938 - 1948

Samuel D. Hewlett
1942 - 1942

William Y. Atkinson
1943 - 1953

Lee R. Wyatt
1943 - 1960

T. Grady Head
1945 - 1965

Thos. S. Candler
1945 - 1966

L. C. Groves
1948 - 1948

J. Harold Hawkins
1949 - 1960

Bond Almand
1949 - 1969

Charles W. Worrill
1953 - 1954

Homer Sutton
1954 - 1954

Carlton Mobley
1954 - 1972

Jos. D. Quillian
1960 - 1966

Benning M. Grice
1960 - 1974

J. Eugene Cook
1965 - 1967

H. E. Nichols
1966-1975 & 1980-1980

Hiram K. Undercofler
1967-1980 & 1980-1981

John E. Frankum
1967 - 1970

Jule W. Felton
1969 - 1972

Peyton Hawes
1970 - 1973

William B. Gunter
1972 - 1977

Robert H. Jordan
1972 - 1980

G. Conley Ingram
1973 - 1977

Robert H. Hall
1974 - 1979
Harold N. Hill, Jr.
1975 - 1982

Jesse G. Bowles
1977 - 1981

Thomas O. Marshall
1977 - 1986

Harold G. Clarke
1979 - 1989

George T. Smith
1981 - 1991

Hardy Gregory, Jr.
1981 - 1989

Charles L. Weltner
1981 - 1992

Richard Bell
1982 - 1992

Willis B. Hunt, Jr.
1986 - 1994

Robert Benham
1990 - 1995 & 2001

Norman S. Fletcher
1990 - 2001

Leah Ward Sears
1992 - 2009

Carol W. Hunstein
1992 - 2009 & 2012

George H. Carley
1993 - 2012

Hugh P. Thompson
1994

Harris Hines
1995

Harold D. Melton
2005

David E. Nahmias
2009

Keith R. Blackwell
2012




AUXILIARY AGENCIES

STATE BAR OF GEORGIA

The State Bar of Georgia was created pursuant to an order of the Supreme Court dated December 6, 1963. The State Bar of Georgia was created

( a ) To foster among the members of the Bar of this State the principles of duty and service to the public;

(b) To improve the administration of justice; and

(c) To advance the science of law.

The State Bar of Georgia was created as an administrative arm of the Court with the powers and duties prescribed in the order creating it. Information concerning the State Bar of Georgia may be obtained from its office at 104 Marietta St. NW, Suite 100, Atlanta, GA 30303.

OFFICE OF BAR ADMISSIONS

The Supreme Court has the duty of setting standards for admission of attorneys to the practice of law. In keeping with this obligation, the Office of Bar Admissions was established by the Supreme Court and given the responsibility of serving as the Administrative Office for the State Board of Bar Examiners and the Board to Determine Fitness of Bar Applicants.

The Board to Determine Fitness of Bar Applicants investigates the backgrounds of those persons who desire to be admitted to the practice of law in Georgia and recommends to the Board of Bar Examiners only those applicants who possess "the character and moral fitness to practice law...," which recommendation forms a part of the applicant's application for admission to the Bar examination. This Board is composed of both attorneys and lay persons who serve without compensation, other than the reimbursement of travel expenses. The Board to Determine Fitness of Bar Applicants operates primarily from the fees paid by the applicants.

The Board of Bar Examiners is composed of five attorneys, appointed by the Court, who are responsible for the preparation and grading of the Georgia bar examination. This examination is administered twice each year. Fees paid by applicants for the bar examination are paid into the State treasury and all expenses of this Board are paid from the Supreme Court's appropriartion.

Copies of the Rules Governing Admission to the Practice of Law may be obtained by writing the Office of Bar Admissions at P.O. Box 3 8466, Atlanta, Georgia 30334.

JUDICIAL QUALIFICATIONS COMMISSION

The Judicial Qualifications Commission is vested with the power to discipline, remove and cause involuntary retirement of judges, except that no removal or involuntary retirement shall occur except upon order of the Supreme Court after review. The 1983 Georgia Constitution provides that any judge may be removed, suspended or otherwise disciplined for willful misconduct in office, willful and persistent failure to perform the duties of office, habitual intemperance, conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude, or for conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the judicial office into disrepute, and that any judge may be retired for disability which constitutes a serious and likely permanent interference with the performance of the duties of office. It further provides that the Supreme Court shall adopt rules of implementation.

The Commission consists of seven members: two judges of courts of record, selected by the Supreme Court; three attorneys who have practiced law in this State for at least ten years, elected by the Board of Governors of the State Bar; and two citizens who are not members of the State Bar, appointed by the Governor. For information concerning the Judicial Qualifications Commission, contact Ronnie Joe Lane, Director, PO Box 1209, Monroe, Georgia 30014.

JUDICIAL COUNCIL OF GEORGIA

The Judicial Council of Georgia was established pursuant to Georgia Laws 1973 and came under the Supreme Court's auspices in 1978. The Judicial Council assists the Supreme Court in planning, policy and administrative matters. The Council is composed of a member or members representing the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, the superior courts, the state courts, the probate courts, the juvenile courts, magistrate courts and the municipal courts.

The Administrative Office of the Courts provides assistance to the Judicial Council and is responsible for studying the courts, assisting court personnel and making recommendations for improvement of the judicial system. For more information contact the Administrative Office of the Courts, Suite 300, 244 Washington St., S.W., Atlanta, Georgia 30334.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE'S COMMISSION ON PROFESSIONALISM

In response to the challenges presented by the perceived decline in lawyer professionalism, the Supreme Court of Georgia and the State Bar of Georgia embarked upon a long-range project to raise the professionalism aspirations of lawyers and judges in the state. In early 1989, the Georgia Supreme Court, acting through the State Bar of Georgia, established the Chief Justice's Commission on Professionalism. The Commission, the first such body of its kind in the country, has as its primary charge ensuring that the practice of law remains a high calling, enlisted in the service not only of the client, but the public good as well.

The activities of the Commission are as follows:

(1) working with continuing legal education sponsors to coordinate the production of professionalism courses and materials

(2) developing in-house law firm training programs and judicial professionalism programs

(3) coordinating the production of State Bar Journal columns and articles

(4) developing a data base of professionalism materials for CLE providers and other interested organizations, groups and individuals

(5) developing mentoring programs for both lawyers and law students, working with the American Law Institute, the Atlanta Jewish Federation, the Atlanta Bar Association, the Georgia Indigent Defense Council and other interested organizations

(6) serving as liaison to the Joint Commission on Alternative Dispute Resolution

(7) planning the Annual Professionalism Convocation

(8) producing videotapes for use by state and national CLE providers

(9) participating in American Bar Association activities concerning professionalism

( 10) assisting the State Bar Committee on Professionalism in accomplishing its goals

( 11 ) such other activities as are developed by the Commission.

The Commission is chaired by the Chief Justice and has as members representatives of the judiciary, the practicing bar, the four ABA-approved law schools and the public. The Commission is staffed by a Director, an Assistant Director and an Administrative Assistant, and may be reached at the State Bar Offices, 800 the Hurt Building.

GEORGIA OFFICE OF DISPUTE RESOLUTION

In October of 1992, the Georgia Supreme Court created the Georgia Commission on Dispute Resolution to develop and oversee a comprehensive statewide system of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) to complement the existing system of justice. The Commission is charged with the following duties and responsibilities:

  • to administer a statewide comprehensive ADR program;
  • to oversee the development and ensure the quality of all court-annexed or court-referred ADR programs;
  • to certify court programs;
  • to develop guidelines for court-annexed or court-referred programs;
  • to develop criteria for training and qualifications of neutrals;
  • to establish standards of conduct for neutrals
  • The Georgia Supreme Court also created the Georgia Office of Dispute Resolution to implement the policies of the Commission. The responsibilities of the Georgia Office of Dispute Resolution include the following:
  • to serve as a resource for ADR education and research;
  • to provide technical assistance to new and existing court-annexed or court-referred programs at no charge;
  • to develop the capability of providing training to neutrals in courts throughout the state at no charge;
  • to implement the Commission's policies regarding qualification of neutrals and quality of programs;
  • to certify and decertify neutrals who will serve in court programs;
  • to collect statistics from court-annexed or court-referred programs in order to monitor the effectiveness of various programs throughout the state.

For more information contact: Shinji Morokuma, Director at 404-463-3788 or visit www.godr.org.

STATE JUDICIAL SYSTEM

Under the 1983 Constitution of Georgia the judicial power of the State is vested in these classes of courts: magistrate courts, probate courts, juvenile courts, state courts, superior courts, Court of Appeals, and Supreme Court. Also, the General Assembly may authorize or establish municipal courts, and those municipal courts, county recorder's courts, civil courts and administrative agencies in existence on June 30, 1983, may continue with the same jurisdiction until otherwise provided by law. Each county is to have at least one superior court, magistrate court, probate court, and where needed a state court and a juvenile court. In the absence of a state court or a juvenile court, the superior court exercises that jurisdiction.

SUPREME COURT OF GEORGIA

See The Court's Jurisdiction

COURT OF APPEALS OF GEORGIA

The Court of Appeals was established by a constitutional amendment in 1906. Under the 1983 Constitution it is a court of review and exercises appellate and certiorari jurisdiction in all cases not reserved to the Supreme Court.

The twelve judges of the Court sit in three divisions of three judges each for hearing and determining cases, except that when one of the three judges dissents the case is considered by the full Court.

Court of Appeals judges are elected statewide on a nonpartisan basis for six year terms. If a vacancy occurs it is filled by appointment of the Governor until the next general election. As to qualifications for judges of the Court of Appeals, the 1983 Constitution requires that they shall have been admitted to practice law for seven years and provides that the General Assembly may provide by law for additional qualifications, including a minimum residency requirement.

SUPERIOR COURTS

The superior courts are trial courts of general jurisdiction. They have exclusive jurisdiction over trials in felony cases, except in the case of juvenile offenders as provided by law; in cases respecting title to land; in divorce cases; and in equity cases. Also, they have such appellate jurisdiction as may be provided by law.

The counties are divided into 46 judicial circuits, each of which has at least one judge. Some circuits are single county circuits and others are comprised of two or more counties. Sessions of court must be held in each county at least twice a year. The total number of superior court judges is 159. The number of judges per circuit ranges from one to 15.

Superior court judges are elected on a nonpartisan basis in circuit-wide elections for four year terms. They must have been admitted to practice law for seven years and must reside in the geographical area in which they are selected to serve. Also, the General Assembly may provide by law for additional qualifications.

STATE COURTS

These are courts of county-wide jurisdiction (except for one which encompasses two counties). There are 87 state courts. They have uniform jurisdiction as provided by law.

State court judges must have been admitted to practice law for five years and must reside in the geographical area in which they are selected to serve. Also, the General Assembly may provide by law for additional qualifications.

JUVENILE COURTS

Each county has a juvenile court. Some have separate juvenile court judges; in the others a judge of the superior court or the state court sits as juvenile court judge.

Juvenile courts have exclusive original jurisdiction over juvenile matters except where the act alleged is a capital offense.

Juvenile court judges must have been admitted to the practice of law for five years and must reside in the geographical area in which they are selected to serve. Also, the General Assembly may provide by law for additional qualifications.

PROBATE COURTS

Probate courts, formerly called courts of ordinary, have original and exclusive jurisdiction of probate of wills, administration of estates, appointment of guardians, issuance of lunacy commissions, and issuance of marriage licenses. They also supervise the printing of election ballots and the counting of votes, and in some counties have jurisdiction over traffic and compulsory school attendance laws.

Each county has a probate court with one probate judge who is elected for a term of four years. Qualifications for this office vary. In larger counties it is required that the probate judge be an attorney.

MAGISTRATE COURTS

Under the 1983 Constitution, justice of the peace courts, small claims courts and one county court became magistrate courts. These courts have uniform jurisdiction as provided by law. At present this jurisdiction includes contract cases and personal property damage, injury, or conversion cases where the amount involved does not exceed a set amount. Also, in criminal cases they may issue warrants and sit as courts of inquiry, binding the accused over to a higher court or discharging him, and they may administer oaths, take affidavits and perform marriages.

Magistrate court judges are elected for four year terms by the voters of their respective counties.

MISCELLANEOUS

There are also remaining as part of the state court system various municipal courts, civil courts and county recorder's courts. Their jurisdiction and the qualifications and selection of their judges vary.