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State court performs vital judicial role
For the record
barry wilkes
Barry Wilkes is the Liberty County clerk of superior court and administrator for the countys state, juvenile and magistrate courts. - photo by File photo

The State Court of Liberty County was established Aug. 9, 1916. Once called “county court” and later the “city court” of Hinesville, the state court has limited civil and criminal jurisdiction, but exclusive jurisdiction over misdemeanor criminal offenses occurring in any geographic area of the county where a municipal court does not exist (such as in Hinesville, Midway and Walthourville, all which have their own municipal courts).

A misdemeanor is a crime for which, upon conviction, the defendant can be incarcerated up to 12 months and, generally, fined in the amount of $1,000 or less. Some misdemeanor fines now require by law a greater mandatory fine amount. Because municipal courts cannot conduct criminal jury trials, criminal cases of those courts can be — and often are — transferred to state court when defendants request a jury trial.  

State court also has jurisdiction over a varying array of civil cases, excluding those over which superior court has exclusive jurisdiction, including domestic-relations issues (specifically divorce, child custody, child support, legitimation of a child and alimony), title to land, disputes over property boundaries and other matters which, by law, another court has specific jurisdiction (such as superior court’s approval of bonds for government entities, magistrate court’s jurisdiction over local county ordinance violations, or juvenile court’s exclusive jurisdiction over cases involving children in need of services or criminal offenses committed by a person younger than 18 years old).

State court has the greatest caseload of any court having countywide jurisdiction. In 2014, the state court disposed of 228 civil cases, including torts, landlord and tenant, and various other types of cases, and 10,043 misdemeanor criminal cases. (A tort is a civil wrong that unfairly causes someone else to suffer loss or harm and results in legal liability for the person who commits the tortious act. For example, people who cause a motor-vehicle accident can be sued for damages, medical expenses and other losses as the result of their actions or inactions).

Of the total number of criminal cases disposed in state court in 2014, 170 were serious traffic offenses (such as driving under the influence), 224 were unrelated to traffic violations (such as simple assault, simple battery and shoplifting) and 9,649 were traffic-related offenses (such as speeding and defective equipment). The total number of cases filed in the court in 2014 was approximately 12 percent greater than the number filed in the previous year. The number of new tort cases filed in state court in 2014 was almost 10 times greater than the number filed in superior court.

Recently, a state-court jury trial for a civil malpractice case set a record as the longest trial held in any court within the county throughout Liberty County’s 226-year history. The trial lasted 10 days.

Criminal cases in state court are disposed of with or without a jury. By law, defendants have the right to a jury trial in any case in which, if convicted, they may be incarcerated or required any other sentence. However, a defendant may waive such right and opt instead for the judge to decide the case after hearing all evidence. Defendants or their attorneys can negotiate with the solicitor-general for the purpose of reaching a “plea bargain” — meaning that, in exchange for pleading guilty to the charges against the defendant, the solicitor-general agrees to recommend to the court for any or all specific criminal charges a lesser period of imprisonment, probation or fine. The judge must concur with all terms of the negotiated plea agreement.

Defendants have a right to legal counsel. Those who cannot afford an attorney are provided one at no cost through the local indigent-defense program. The county contracts with the Georgia Public Defender Council’s Atlantic Judicial Circuit office for legal services. Brandon Clark is director.

Liberty County’s state-court judge previously served part-time. Judge Leon M. Braun Jr., who was first elected in 1993 after J. Noel Osteen retired with 21 years of service, became the court’s first full-time judge in 2008. Jeffrey N. Osteen (former Judge Osteen’s son) serves as the court’s elected part-time solicitor-general, whose chief duty is to prosecute criminal cases. He is a member of the Jones, Osteen and Jones law firm in Hinesville.

As the elected clerk of the Superior Court of Liberty County, I serve as clerk and administrator of the state court to save tax dollars, reduce duplication of services and provide residents a one-door court system. Two deputy clerks are assigned to state court — Katina Sapp (criminal division) and Joann Downs (civil division). I also serve as clerk and administrator of the county’s juvenile and magistrate courts.
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