The Courts, Part 2: Which Court Can Hear Your Case?

Authored By: Carl Vinson Institute
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Jurisdiction: Which Court Can Hear Your Case?

This document tells you the following:

  • How does a court know it has the power to hear a case?
  • What is supplemental jurisdiction?
  • What is personal jurisdiction?
  • What are the Georgia trial courts? What kinds of cases can they hear?
  • What are the Georgia appellate courts? What kinds of cases can they hear?
  • What are the courts in the federal court system? What kinds of cases can they hear?


Each court has the authority to hear certain cases. The legal rights and duties that a court can decide and enforce are determined by that court's jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is the power and authority of a court to hear and decide a case. There are two general types of jurisdiction: subject matter and personal.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction

A court must have the authority to enforce the kinds of laws (or legal rights and duties) that are involved in the dispute. This authority, called subject matter jurisdiction, is defined by the law creating the court.

State courts are established by state laws. Usually, the jurisdictions of local government courts are also defined by state laws.
A person breaking a federal law-such as smuggling drugs into the country from a foreign state-would be tried in federal court. In general, federal courts hear disputes arising under federal laws. A person breaking a Georgia law can only be tried for it in a Georgia court. The same would be true for other states as well. A federal court or a court in another state would not have subject matter jurisdiction over the case.
An exception to this general rule can occur when a state civil statute is violated. Such a violation may fall within the federal court's supplemental jurisdiction. If so, the case would then be tried in federal court.
Robbing the mail is a federal crime. The federal district court would therefore have subject matter jurisdiction in situation 1.

The law establishing a court may be quite specific as to its powers. Consider the following situation:


 A state law requires that all cities must have "town courts." These courts can only try civil cases involving claims of less than $5,000.

Would the town court have subject matter jurisdiction in the following cases?

(a) A robbery of $500 worth of goods?

(b) An insurance claim dispute of $10,000?

(c) A claim of damages for $500?

This court is called a court of limited jurisdiction, and it would have only subject matter jurisdiction in case (c). Case (a) is a criminal case, and case (b) involves too much money. This court has the power to hear only specific types of cases.

Some courts do not have limits on the types of cases they can enforce. These courts are called courts of general jurisdiction.

For some kinds of cases, however, laws give subject matter jurisdiction to more than one court. There are many examples. In Georgia, cases that involve claims for damages can be heard by the superior state or magistrates court, depending on the amount of the claim. Federal court rulings have held that cases concerning violations of federal equal employment opportunity law may be heard in state as well as federal courts. In such instances, these courts are said to have concurrent jurisdiction.


Personal Jurisdiction

A court must also have power (or authority) to act with respect to the parties before it. This authority is called personal jurisdiction. Two elements must be met for a court to have personal jurisdiction over the parties.

First, there must be a reasonable relationship between the court and the parties. The relationship is often a matter of place and location. In civil cases, the court in the county in which the defendant lives is usually where the case will be heard. Sometimes, the defendant lives outside the state but has enough contacts within the state to come under what is called the "long-arm" statute. The civil case would therefore be heard in the county in which the problem took place.

To understand how the long-arm statute works, suppose several Georgians were injured by a faulty product made in California. Under the long-arm statute, they might be able to sue the California manufacturer in a Georgia court. It would depend on how much contact the manufacturer had with the state. Without the long-arm statute, the Georgians might have to sue in California.

The following situation illustrates what happens in a criminal case.

In criminal cases, the court of the county in which the crime was committed has personal jurisdiction over the person arrested.

The second element of personal jurisdiction is the court must notify defendants of the civil claims or criminal charges against them to give them the opportunity to protect their rights. A defendant must be notified enough in advance to allow time to prepare adequately for the defense of the case. Notice can be waived (or given up), but the waiver can only be done willingly and with full understanding of the consequences.




Even though the Georgia court system was simplified when the 1983 constitution took effect, it is still fairly complicated.

Trial Courts

Georgia has a number of courts that have what is called original jurisdiction. Courts that have original jurisdiction are the first to hear and decide a case. They are called trial courts.

The superior court is the main trial court in Georgia. Similar courts in other states may have different names. They may be called circuit courts or district courts. Superior courts are courts of general jurisdiction. They have exclusive jurisdiction over felonies (that is, the more serious crimes under Georgia law) and in certain areas of civil law. The superior courts are divided into 49 circuits, or geographic areas. In circuits that include more than one county, the superior court holds sessions in each county at least once each year. The court takes on the name of the county in which it holds sessions. In other words, when the Superior Court of the Pataula Circuit is holding sessions in Early County, it is known as the Superior Court of Early County. That is why each county is said to have a superior court.

Only 70 counties have state courts. State courts were created to lessen the caseload in superior courts. They have jurisdiction over misdemeanors (which are less serious crimes than felonies) and many civil disputes.

Each county has a probate court. These courts are among the oldest courts in Georgia. In earlier days, the judges were called county ordinaries. All probate courts have jurisdiction to probate wills (that is, to establish a will as genuine and valid).

Each county also has a juvenile court. In 2002, there were 120 judges serving the 159 counties. The state funds one fulltime judge for every four superior court judges in a circuit. They hear matters involving children.

The 1983 Georgia Constitution required each county to have a magistrate court by 1985. These courts replaced a variety of other courts (such as small claims courts, justice of the peace courts, etc.). A case involving one person suing another for damages to his or her car resulting from an accident is an example. In some cities, there are also municipal and special courts that do not come under the state system.

Appellate Courts

Like most states, Georgia has two appellate courts: the Georgia Supreme Court and the Georgia Court of Appeals. As appellate courts, they have the power to review and revise the judicial actions of lower courts.

The Georgia Supreme Court is the highest court in the state. It hears cases in which it has exclusive appellate jurisdiction. The intermediate appellate court, the Georgia Court of Appeals, hears appeals in all cases except those reserved exclusively for the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court may also hear appeals from the losing party in a decision originally appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals. However, the Supreme Court can decide whether or not it wishes to review these cases. The Supreme Court usually reviews only two kinds of cases. One kind involves important legal principles. The other kind concerns cases in which the court thinks a great injustice might have occurred.

Superior courts also have appellate powers. They can review cases from the lower courts of limited jurisdiction. However, an appeal to the superior court differs somewhat from an appeal to the two higher appellate courts because, in some cases, additional evidence may be presented during an appeal at the superior court level. No new evidence is permitted in the higher appellate courts. In fact, at the superior court level an appeal can become a whole new trial of the case. This trial is called a trial de novo.


The federal court system is somewhat similar to the Georgia court system. There are a number of trial courts and two appellate courts.

The system divides the country into 12 circuits. Each circuit consists of specified states and territories, except for the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.), which is a circuit unto itself (see figure 33). Each circuit has a court of appeals. This court hears appeals from the district courts in the circuit.

Each state is divided into districts. There are one to four districts per state. Georgia has three districts: Northern, Middle, and Southern. Each district has a trial court. District trial courts are the principal trial courts of the federal system. They are courts of general jurisdiction. However, there are some limitations. For instance, in a civil case, the matter at issue must involve $50,000 or more for a district court to hear it.

The federal system has a number of trial and appellate courts with limited and exclusive jurisdictions. These courts include the U.S. Court of Claims, the Tax Court of the United States, and the U.S. Court of International Trade (whose appeals go first to the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals). In addition, there are military courts. Military court decisions are appealed to the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, which has final jurisdiction. Bankruptcy courts are also a special type of court in the federal system. Bankruptcy cases are initiated in these courts, and appeals relating to them are conducted in the U.S.

District Court

The U.S. Supreme Court, unlike the Georgia Supreme Court, can act as a trial court. It can hear certain cases for the first time. For example, the Supreme Court would hear controversies between state governments, such as boundary disputes.

Like the Georgia Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court hears only certain types of appeals. Generally, these appeals involve substantial questions of federal constitutional law. However, the Supreme Court can decide whether to review decisions of the court of appeals.


* Excerpted from An Introduction to Law in Georgia, Third Edition, published by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, 1998 (updated 2001). The Vinson Institute is not responsible for errors in the online text. Content is for information only; in no way should the information in the book be considered legal advice to anyone on any matter for which there are legal implications. Any such matter should be specifically addressed with an attorney. The book is available for purchase at or by contacting the Publications Program, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 201 M. Milledge Avenue, Athens, GA 30602; telephone 706-542-6377; fax 706-542-6239.

Last Review and Update: Jul 30, 2004