State Court History as compiled by the Honorable James W. Head
Judge Head is a senior judge and former Chief Judge of State Court who gathered the following information from various sources.
The State Court of Chatham County has the distinction of being the oldest small claims court in the State of Georgia. The year 1796 was an important year for the City of Savannah. The most important event that year was a fire which destroyed a major portion of the city. The resulting devastation changed the lifestyle of the small port city for many years. However, practically unnoticed, there was another more important event in the life of Savannah - the formal creation of a Mayor's Court as a Court of record for Savannah.
On February 13, 1796 the Georgia Legislature enacted a bill establishing a Court to be known as The Mayor's Court of Savannah. The Court's jurisdiction involved suits not exceeding $50.00, cases of seamen for non-payment of wages, and committal hearings in criminal cases. Savannah flourished during the War of 1812, but with its end, Savannah slowly slipped into financial trouble, as did the rest of the country. As is often the case, the fairly rapid down slide in the economy caused a reciprocal upswing in the activity of the legal community. Georgia enacted the first state criminal code and along with it, the establishment of a state penitentiary system in 1816.
In 1819, the state legislature passed a bill to stop the imprisonment of debtors in Savannah, a city founded especially to avoid such an evil as incarceration of those who were unable to pay their bills. This act allowed such debtors out of the common jail, (then called a Gaol) but within a specified boundary, in order that they might remain with their families and continue working to repay their creditors. Today, a casual tourist in Savannah would hardly recognize the small, stone markers inscribed "G.B." (an abbreviation for "Gaol Bounds"). Also in 1819, because of the backlog of cases in the Superior Court, the legislature expanded the jurisdiction of the Mayor's Court and changed its name to The Court of Common Pleas and Oyer and Terminer for the City of Savannah. With this change, the Judge (no longer the Mayor of Savannah), the Clerk, and the Solicitor (or DA) became elected by the people of the City.
Through the years, the state legislature changed the jurisdiction of the Court of Common Pleas, but the most significant change was made in 1853. The name changed to the City Court of Savannah, and in 1881, the jurisdictional limits of the city Court of Savannah expanded to embrace not only the City of Savannah, but all of Chatham County. Ironically, this expanded jurisdiction was not really recognized until 1970, when the name was changed to the State Court of Chatham County. From 1796 until today, the jurisdiction of the State Court of Chatham County has changed drastically from a small claims court, with a $50.00 maximum, to a court of unlimited jurisdiction. The State Court handles Class Action suits, Product Liability, Personal Injury and Malpractice cases as well as routine account, note, dispossessory and garnishment cases. Any Party in a lawsuit has the option of having his or her case tried before a judge or before a jury.
In Criminal matters, the court went from a committal court with no power to sentence offenders, to a court with the ability to try a case either before a judge or before a jury. Such cases as driving under the influence, simple battery and domestic violence make up the bulk of the State Court cases. Sentences range from simple fines and/or jail time, to elaborate alternative sentences, including the obligation of services designed to rehabilitate defendants along with punishment.