Judicial System 101 (Is the justice system just?)

The judicial branch is one of the three branches of government, but it’s probably the least well known. Let’s explore the judicial branch of government on the federal, state and local levels.

Superior Court Judge Lisa Lott, Municipal Court Judge Ryan Hope and Circuit Public Defender John Donnelly discuss their roles in the justice system and how they think this system can be reformed.


The judicial system is made up of courts, judges, juries, defenders and prosecutors. Together, they interpret the law and decide how to punish those who break it. This is one of the three branches of government, and probably the most important for checking executive power, including Presidents and the police. On paper, judges exist to stop the powerful, from exercising their power without justification. That makes them essential to upholding our constitution and protecting our democracy from corrupt leaders.

Many judges are elected officials, but still, most of us don’t know much about who they are or what they do.

The Federal Court System

Let’s start on the federal level, with the 94 district courts scattered around the country and on islands and other US territories. These courts are the entry point for cases involving federal law or where the federal government is a party to the litigation, either as a defendant or plaintiff. These courts handle cases like constitutional rights violations, mail or internet fraud, tax evasion and drug trafficking, which all add up to about 350,000 cases a year.

If the losing party in one of these cases doesn’t like the outcome and wants to appeal, the case will move on to be heard in, you guessed it, a Court of Appeals. These are also called Circuit Courts. If a decision from one of these courts is appealed, the case might go all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is a body of 9 Justices who have the final say over all federal cases. Since the landmark decision of Marbury v Madison in 1803, the Supreme Court also has the power to strike down laws as unconstitutional. That means they also provide a check on the power of the legislative branch of government. The Supreme Court hears about 100-150 cases a year, out of about 8000 they’re asked to review. If they don’t choose to take your case, don’t take it personally, but the decision of the Circuit court would end up being final.

Federal judges, including Supreme Court Justices, are appointed by the President and are confirmed by the Senate, and usually serve for life.

As important as our federal court system is, most people may not ever have a reason to interact with it. 350,000 cases a year may sound like a lot, but the US system of state courts see over 100 million cases a year! Also, Federal prisoners only make up about 12% of the prison population. About 57% of prisoners are held by the states.

Georgia’s Court System

Georgia’s court system is set up similarly to the federal government. It’s a bit more complex because there are a number of courts where a case could begin, each with a different specialty. For example, the State Court of Athens-Clarke County handles misdemeanors and general civil cases, except for domestic relations. The Superior Court handles all felonies.

Superior Court Judge Lisa Lott: “I’m Lisa Lott and I am one of the Superior Court judges for the Western Judicial Circuit. That includes Clarke and Oconee Counties. In Superior Court, there are four judges, and we deal with all felony criminal cases and really all civil cases. Custody and divorce are exclusively in the realm of Superior Court, but the bulk of what Superior Court does is felony criminal cases and family law.”

All of these judges are elected by the people, and most serve 4 year terms. Judges on the Courts of Appeals and Justices on the Georgia Supreme Court serve 6 year terms.

On the local level, we have several courts including Magistrate Court, Probate Court, Juvenile Court and Municipal Court. If someone appeals a decision of one of these courts, they’ll wind up in the state Superior Court. Municipal Court Judge Ryan Hope was appointed by the mayor and is confirmed by the commission every two years.

Municipal Court Judge Ryan Hope: “The jurisdiction of the Municipal Court, generally throughout the state of Georgia, is that it adjudicates traffic offenses, that’s what it’s probably most known for. In most jurisdictions, it would also handle ordinance violations and some minor misdemeanors. So that is the bulk of my case load. And then the traffic could be anything from a seatbelt up to driving under the influence of alcohol would probably be the most serious offense you could have in municipal court.”

Now, we have a general understanding of the structure of the judicial system, but there are a few important positions I haven’t mentioned yet.

The District Attorney and Solicitor are both elected positions. The DA is responsible for prosecuting felonies and the Solicitor is responsible for misdemeanors. The flip-side of the District Attorney is the District Public Defender’s Office, which defends those accused of crimes but who can’t afford to hire an attorney.

Circuit Public Defender John Donnelly: “My name is John Donnelly and my title is the Circuit Public Defender. So, I am a laywer at the Public Defender’s office, staff of 18 lawyers actually, and I’ve worked there for a little over 25 years.”

Now let’s expand our conversation beyond courts and judges to discuss our criminal justice system as a whole, including prisons and the police. The United States has the highest number of people behind bars of any country in the world. We even have the highest incarceration rate – yes, higher than Cuba, higher than China. Our police are heavily armed and kill more people over a period of days than they do in many countries for an entire year. We put 5 times the number of children behind bars than any other country.

APN: “Do you think the criminal justice system needs reform, and if so how?”

Circuit Public Defender John Donnelly: “Yeah, it does!”

Superior Court Judge Lisa Lott: “Yes, absolutely. I think the justice system always, always can be reformed. There are certainly many things wrong in our justice system across the nation.”

Municipal Court Judge Ryan Hope: “There are certainly areas that are constantly being worked on, and in some jurisdictions are better than others. So I feel like the Leslie Knope of the justice system sometimes, because I do feel like we can do good things, even though that might not always be the public perception. And as a judge, we are sometimes limited in what we can do. I can’t just say I don’t like this law and not do anything about that law.”

Circuit Public Defender John Donnelly: “I think that the thing that could have the biggest impact would happen outside of the criminal justice arena. The school system, with the, you know, just, employment opportunities, to address as I said sort of this rift in society between the haves and the have-nots. But, within the criminal justice system, yeah there are reforms to be made. Some of them have started happening. I think that, you know, as probably natural they are starting with the lowest, the easiest things.”

Superior Court Judge Lisa Lott: “Georgia has been a front-runner in the past decade in reforming the criminal justice system, and it really started under Governor Deal. Certainly from reducing the “prison pipeline” as people refer to it, reducing the number of people incarcerated, making sure that pro se people have access to the courts, making sure that people who are drug-addicted, substance-abuse defendants don’t just go to prison and we shut the door and not treat them.”

Municipal Court Judge Ryan Hope: “We’ve seen that approach expand to mental health issues with our mental health court treatment and accountability court, veterans court, and I think some of those philosophies are now getting into just how we deal with our day-to-day cases. Even if someone isn’t a repeat offender that’s going into one of those accountability court-type programs, I think the judges in general realize that what may have happened in the past, just because something was always done that way, doesn’t mean it should continue to be done that way.”

Circuit Public Defender John Donnelly: “Mandatory minimums on certain felony offenses, that would be, in my opinion, a big thing to get rid of. People end up in the criminal justice system for things that sound insignificant, like driving on a suspended license or without a license, and that can snowball into bigger issues, and you would be surprised at the number of days people spend in jail just for driving without a license, and maybe if there was a program where people, licenses could be issued in high school if they took a mandatory driver’s ed class or something.”

It’s true we’ve made some real reforms in Georgia over the past several years. We’ve also made reform here in Athens, and we seem poised to continue making change for years to come. But are these changes happening quickly enough?

Circuit Public Defender John Donnelly: “At what point is this a losing proposition? If we’re putting someone in jail, sending them to prison for a year or two years for shoplifting? Who is being punished more at that point, if it’s going to cost the taxpayers thousands and thousands of dollars.”

Change isn’t going to come overnight. But if we stay informed and stay engaged, it will come eventually.

Superior Court Judge Lisa Lott: “Yes! People should absolutely care about the justice system and who their judges are.”

Municipal Court Judge Ryan Hope: “The courts, even on something as minor as traffic offenses, can really impact someone’s life. The amount of money a speeding fine can cost, what it can do to someone’s insurance, whether or not they get to keep their license based on how fast the speed is, or how serious their offense is. The courts obviously have a huge impact on the lives of the individuals who come before them.”

Circuit Public Defender John Donnelly: “Sheriff, the Solicitor General, CR Chisholm currently, the District Attorney; those are very powerful positions! They have the authority to lock folks up, and particularly in the DA’s office, to lock them up for a long time. Most of the voters would want them to be good at their job, to put away the bad guys, so to speak. So there is that, but there’s also the responsibility about exercising discretion in who to prosecute and for how long.”

With the Sheriff and DA up for election in May, Athens will have a chance to further reform our criminal justice system.

You can subscribe to my channel to keep up to date on the state and local-level elections happening in 2020. I’m going to do interviews with candidates, create a voter guide and more. I’ll see you on the next one.

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