Guest article by Ché Young
Have you ever watched a court show on TV, like “Judge Judy” or “The People’s Court”? Well, if you have, you have just been introduced to Magistrate Court and the types of cases that Magistrate Court handles. Have you ever wondered if the cases on these shows are real? They are! And in Macon-Bibb County, judges in the Civil & Magistrate Court hear cases like this and more on a daily basis.
What is Magistrate Court?
In Macon-Bibb, Civil Court is combined with Magistrate Court, but most people just refer to both courts as Magistrate Court or the People’s Court, just like the TV show. Although the courts are combined, there are some differences in the two courts that most people are unaware of.
Civil Court handles civil disputes in which the amount in controversy does not exceed $25,000. Citizens who file their claims in Civil Court can have a jury trial if they so choose. Instead of a twelve (12) person jury, Civil Court sits a six (6) person jury to decide disputes. In Civil Court, there is also the choice of having a judge decide your case, as well as having a mediator listen to both sides and offer a resolution. Magistrate Court handles civil disputes in which the amount in controversy is not in excess of $15,000. There is no choice of a jury trial in Magistrate Court, just a judge or a mediator.
But did you know that Magistrate Court also handles criminal cases? In fact, practically all criminal cases in Macon-Bibb County pass through Magistrate Court first. Magistrate Court judges issue arrest warrants and search warrants, and they handle the Initial Appearance Hearings of individuals arrested on criminal warrants. These judges also issue initial bonds to individuals during the first 48 to 72 hours of arrest. Want a quickie marriage or a no-frills wedding for practical purposes? Magistrate Court to the rescue! These are also the judges that conduct marriages at the courthouse.
Magistrate Court handles so much; how do they keep up? It takes a team to run Magistrate Court. There are five Magistrate Court Judges, including the Chief Judge, who is elected by the citizens of Macon-Bibb County. Currently, three of the five magistrates are lawyers, having been legally trained, graduated from law school, passed the Bar, and practiced law for a number of years before being appointed as an associate judge by the Chief Judge. The remaining two (2) magistrates are non-attorney judges, having worked in Magistrate Court for several years before being appointed as a judge.
It is a little-known fact that a magistrate judge does not have to be a lawyer. The Chief Judge is free to choose non-attorneys to serve as magistrates. However, one must be an attorney to preside over the civil cases, so the two non-attorney magistrates concentrate their focus solely on criminal proceedings in Magistrate Court. In addition to the Magistrate Court judges, there are approximately 28 employees working in the Magistrate Court.
Why is Magistrate Court so important?
When you watch TV crime dramas, like “Law and Order,” and you see the detectives interrupting the judge’s dinner at a restaurant to get her to sign a warrant that just can’t wait; or the judge answering the front door of his home in the middle of the night with a robe on to sign a search warrant for a detective–those are Magistrate Court judges! These judges operate on a 24-hour basis to make sure our community is safe and that the police are following the law before and after effectuating a search of property or an arrest of a person. That is why it is so important that we have Magistrate Judges that not only KNOW the law but are willing to FOLLOW the law.
If you or your loved one has been assaulted and the person responsible has been arrested but is now up for bond, who do you want to be the judge considering that bond? On the other hand, if you or your loved one has been arrested for a crime for the very first time and are unsure of how the criminal justice system works, who do you want to be the judge considering your bond? It is extremely important that a Magistrate Judge has a clear understanding of how both sides in a criminal case operates. Knowing both sides of the coin allows a judge to look at each individual that comes before the court and determine the best outcome based on that individual’s case and the circumstances surrounding that individual’s arrest.
On the civil side, it is important to have a Magistrate Judge that is not only knowledgeable, but also one that can reach people on all levels. Let’s look at the types of cases Magistrate Court handles on the civil side. You have your run of the mill car accident cases, landlord/tenant matters, wage garnishments (from credit card claims and other matters), claims filed by furniture stores and other local businesses that want their merchandise back from customers for non-payment, and other small claims matters. Much like “Judge Judy” and the other court shows, most parties in Magistrate Court often represent themselves. That is another reason you might hear Magistrate Court described as “The People’s Court”. Having a judge that is knowledgeable of the law, respectful to everyone, and is comfortable dealing with people from all walks of life is of upmost importance in Magistrate Court.
Magistrate Court is the foundation of our court system in Macon. Although it is the lowest court, it is the establishment upon which the higher courts are built. If Magistrate Court gets it right, then that creates more efficiency in the higher courts (State and Superior Courts), and less time that the higher courts must spend reviewing the Magistrates’ decisions. The higher courts can trust that the Magistrate Court has gotten it right and concentrate on matters that fall under their original jurisdiction. As well, this creates a trust with the citizens of Macon-Bibb and other people who rely on the court to dispense a legal remedy that is rational and unbiased.
Similarly, agencies like the District Attorney’s Office and the Solicitor’s Office can trust that the Magistrate Court is following the law and making good decisions on cases that will eventually be turned over to local prosecuting attorneys. Being open to ideas for improvement and working with other agencies and the citizens of Macon-Bibb County is imperative to maintaining a strong, stable foundation for our court system. Since 1999, Judge Billy Randall has served as the elected Civil Court Judge & Chief Magistrate. He has announced his retirement for the end of the year, which means Macon-Bibb will get to elect a new Chief Magistrate after almost 20 years. Make sure you are informed and ready to vote for the right candidate for the May 22nd election.