The Georgia state constitution provides the basic framework for Georgia’s government. It takes precedence over any other source of law within the state; i.e. laws passed by the Legislature, court decisions and local ordinances.
A new constitution ratified by the people of Georgia in 1982 became effective July 1, 1983. Georgia has had a total of ten constitutions. In reality, these constitutions were not all separate and distinct documents; often the language of one was carried over to the following constitution. The Constitution of 1983 resulted in a major revision of the basic laws of the state.
To amend the constitution, two-thirds of the House of Representatives and Senate chambers must vote in favor of the proposed amendment. The amendment is then passed on to the voters in the next general election. If a majority of the people vote in favor of the amendment then it will be ratified.
The Georgia State Flag
The Georgia state flag has three red and white stripes and the state coat of arms on a blue field in the upper left corner. Thirteen stars surrounding the seal denotes Georgia's position as one of the original thirteen colonies. On the seal three pillars supporting an arch represent the three branches of government; legislative, judicial and executive. A man with sword drawn is defending the Constitution, whose principles are wisdom, justice and moderation. The date 1776 represents the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Below the seal is the motto "In God We Trust," acknowledging the fact that civil officers hold their trust from God through the people, to protect and enforce right, and restrain and punish evil-doers. Former Representative Bobby Franklin (District 43, Cobb County) was instrumental in the creation and adoption of the flag; it was adopted May 8, 2003.
The executive branch, the largest branch of state government in terms of both employees and funding, enforces law and carries out programs such as education, health, welfare and transportation.
The chief official in the executive branch is the Governor who is elected by the voters for a four-year term, with succession to one consecutive term allowed. The Governor has a number of powers in state government, including proposing new programs and laws for the state, proposing a state budget for the legislature to consider, vetoing legislation and appointing members of many of the boards in state government.
In addition to the Governor, Georgia’s constitution provides for several constitutional officers who are the heads of executive departments and are elected directly by the voters for four-year terms. The authority for the offices of these officials is established in the state constitution. Currently, the list of constitutional officers includes the Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, Commissioner of Insurance (formerly Comptroller General), Superintendent of Schools, Commissioner of Labor and Commissioner of Agriculture.
A majority of executive departments are headed by policy-making boards, whose members are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. Usually in cooperation with the Governor, the boards appoint a department director or commissioner to administer agency affairs. A few department heads are appointed directly by the Governor.
The Georgia General Assembly, the formal title of the legislature, was formed in 1777 and is older than the United States Congress. At the time of its origin, the legislature consisted of a single house, but in 1789 it became a bicameral body, consisting of a House of Representatives and a Senate.
The House of Representatives and Senate operate with similar powers, except that appropriation bills must originate in the House, while confirmation of the Governor’s appointments rests with the Senate. The concurrence of both bodies is necessary before any bill may become a law.
The House of Representatives has 180 members and the Senate has 56. Two-year terms of office apply to both houses, and the entire membership of each body is elected at the same time.
Presiding over the House of Representatives is the Speaker, a member of that body elected every two years by the membership. In the Senate, the Lieutenant Governor as president of the Senate serves as presiding officer. Both offices have a number of formal powers, including the appointment of committee members, the assignment of bills to committee and the recognition of members who want to speak on the chamber floor.
At the heart of the legislature is its committee system, where most study and consideration of legislation occurs. Before a bill can come up for a vote before the full body, a committee must have studied the bill and reported it out of committee with a recommendation.
The General Assembly meets each year, beginning the second Monday in January, for the legislative session; a typical session lasts until mid-March. During the session the legislature has the responsibility of enacting new laws, amending existing ones, or eliminating unnecessary ones. Additionally, one of the important functions of the legislature is to annually enact a budget for the state, termed a general appropriation act, which sets the level of funding for all programs in state government.
The third branch of state government consists of courts of limited, general and appellate jurisdiction. Judges of these courts are popularly elected, with trial and appellate judges selected on a non-partisan basis. Judges of the probate courts compete in partisan elections.
Courts of limited jurisdiction generally hear less serious cases. In this category are: (1) magistrate courts, which issue search warrants, try violations of county ordinances and hear civil suits under $15,000; (2) probate courts, which probate wills, administer estates and in some counties handle traffic cases; (3) state courts of counties, which hear civil cases and misdemeanor criminal cases and (4) juvenile courts, which hear cases involving youths under seventeen. Each county in Georgia has its own magistrate, probate and juvenile court; while approximately sixty counties have a state court of the county. Magistrate, probate and juvenile judges decide cases without a jury, while state courts provide for a jury trial. Decisions of magistrate and probate judges can be appealed to superior court where the case is tried anew; while juvenile and state court appeals go to Georgia’s appellate courts.
The basic trial court with general jurisdiction for hearing cases involving state law is the superior court. Here, any civil or criminal case may be tried and all felonies must be tried. Unless the defendant requests that the judge alone try the case, a jury is used to reach a verdict. The legislature has divided Georgia into forty-eight superior court circuits, with each circuit containing from one to eight counties and served by one or more judges. Superior court must meet at least twice a year within each county of a circuit. Each county has its own superior court, although its judge may be shared with other counties in the circuit.
Georgia’s two major courts of appellate jurisdiction are the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. These courts do not try cases, but hear appeals from lower courts. The Court of Appeals has twelve judges and can hear any appeal from a trial court, unless the Constitution has specifically directed that the matter be heard by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court consists of seven justices who make up the state’s highest appellate body. Any appeal involving the constitutionality of any law, interpretation of the U.S. or Georgia Constitution and election matters must be heard by this court. Additionally, the high court may hear appeals in other matters, such as capital felonies, divorce and alimony, and cases in which the Court of Appeals has requested ruling.