Many years ago, at the conclusion of the longest criminal jury trial in Liberty County’s history, I overheard an attorney’s son, who sat through several days of presentation of evidence during the trial, tell his father that, of all the jobs of court officials involved, he wanted my job as clerk of superior court.
“Why?” the attorney asked him.
“He didn’t have much to do during the trial,” the son replied.
“Hmm,” his father laughed while looking over at me. “Son, he was working all the time … and did all the work that made the trial possible. He just made it look easy. If you knew exactly what the clerk does, it would be the last job you’d want. It’s probably one of the hardest and probably most-important jobs anyone could ever have.”
Intricate duties and responsibilities conferred upon and required of the clerk by law, uniform rules of the court, local court rules and standing orders of the courts, as well as appellate-court decisions, should dictate that the person elected by residents of a county to serve them as clerk of superior court is more than minimally qualified for the job. Although not required by law, the clerk in a county with the workload and population the size of Liberty County’s should be formally educated and aptly experienced in business administration, accounting, court management and information-systems development and management. Additionally, the clerk should be uniquely and aptly qualified, love to work and not be afraid of hard work, and be achievement-oriented. The job demands no less because of the complexities of required duties and responsibilities and complex legal decisions the clerk must be prepared to make regularly, requiring specialized and often recondite knowledge, multifarious interpersonal and intrapersonal working relationships with a seemingly endless array of court and government officials and agencies, and other rigorous demands placed upon the person as an elected, county constitutional officer.
Clerks are responsible for everything in the office, including all clerical, accounting and administrative duties required for every court they serve to function efficiently (I serve as clerk and court administrator of superior, state, juvenile and magistrate as a means for saving local tax dollars by centralizing clerical and administrative duties), including filing, recording and archiving all court documents, pleadings, orders and judgments, and all land records of the county (i.e., deeds, liens, plats and other documents affecting ownership and lien interests on real and personal property). Every clerical act must be performed by the clerk and clerk’s office staff with absolute precision. Errors cannot occur because, when they do, they may adversely affect due process or ownership or interest rights of persons relying upon such services.
The clerk is the CEO of the clerk’s office. Deputies of the office serve at the clerk’s pleasure; however, once employed, they are required to perform any act that the clerk is authorized by law to perform other than appointment of deputy clerks. The clerk is legally responsible for every document submitted for filing, every penny paid to the office, and every action and inaction of the deputy clerks. Clerks of courts can be sued for their deputies’ actions, inactions or mistakes. If, for example, the clerk or a deputy clerk incorrectly files or misindexes a court document or land record, the affected party can assert a claim for damages against the clerk. If a court determines the error impeded the party’s rights to due process or adversely affects ownership rights or security interest in real or personal property, the clerk can be held legally liable in both official and individual capacity, meaning that the clerk can be required to pay the judgment out of pocket.
The clerk is the chief accounting officer for the courts, with a primary duty being to receive, properly account for and pay out all monies received, including court fees, criminal fines and mandated surcharges and assessments and sums paid into the registry of the court for the future benefit of parties in litigation. On average, the clerk’s office collects, properly accounts for and pays out approximately $5 million annually, with almost all monies paid by the clerk to more than 27 state and local beneficiary agencies of government.
In court, the clerk is the chief information officer, serving as custodian of official court records, keeping minutes of proceedings, receiving and processing all orders and pleadings, administering oaths and providing other essential services to the court as required by law. In the office, the clerk also serves as the chief information officer and information-technology director, ensuring the office’s compliance with provisions of the state’s Open Records Act that mandates unfettered access to all records of the state and local governments and providing access to and copies of court and land records that are not exempt from disclosure by law.
Clerks serve as the chief jury management officer for superior and state courts, the two courts they serve that are legally authorized to conduct jury trials. Their primary jury-management duties are to ensure that the county’s jury lists are properly maintained so as to ensure absolutely the lists’ integrity, safeguard them from tampering and, when jurors are needed for the trial of any case, to summon and ensure that a requisite number of eligible residents of the county are present for jury selection. County jury lists are now created by the Council of Superior Court Clerks of Georgia from the state’s lists of persons having a Georgia driver’s license and eligible voters. However, the clerk is the official custodian of local jury lists.