Georgia’s system of state and local government evolved from a long and rigorous series of historical events that occurred in Europe hundreds of years ago, when tyrants ruled absolutely, were often absolutely corrupt and maintained power by force. Under their command, property rights were limited only to what a person could possess, protect and continue to maintain control through might. There were no other property rights per se.
King John of England ruled from 1199-1216. He held his kingdom in check through force of arms and basically did whatever he wanted. He rewarded his friends and exterminated his enemies. If he wanted your property, he took it. If he didn’t like you, you were put to death. His greatest weakness was that he liked war. To pay for those wars, he taxed his subjects mercilessly until, after they had enough, barons of England forced him in 1215 to sign the Magna Carta (“the Great Charter”), which laid the foundation for an English system of property rights and due process, both of which required establishment of systems for ensuring justice, enforcement of judicial orders and decrees, written records and recordkeeping. The only persons other than nobility at time who could read and write well enough to keep court records were the clergy (“clerics,” a term that was later anglicized as “clerks”). Clerks became the stewards of records necessary for ensuring due process.
Before the Magna Carta was ratified, the only evidence a person had that he or she owned land was actual possession, but in time, the method for conveying ownership changed. Initially, a rudimentary process was established in which the one in possession of land would go onto the land with the buyer and witnesses and have a conveyance ceremony of the seller walking the property to be conveyed or simply pointing it out to the buyer in front of the witnesses. The seller would orally declare how ownership was being conveyed. Upon the seller placing a clump of dirt in the hand of the buyer, the transaction was a done deal.
This system was inherently flawed because, over time, witnesses died or forgot details about the transaction. As more people learned to read and write, written documents were established as fundamental elements of the “granting” ceremony. Written grant deeds provided tangible records of what was conveyed and to whom. Grant deeds were filed at the Royal Court at Westminster under the watchful eye of the clerk.
Written deeds provided physical proof of ownership that protected the owner’s rights. Ownership entitled a landowner to sell, lease, bequeath to heirs or pledge as collateral for loans “titled” lands. Having a written record helped prevent secret, clandestine and illegal conveyances whereby others could steal a person’s property.
Almost 500 years later, James Oglethorpe became a reformer of England’s prison system after a friend was jailed because of his debts, thrown into a cell with a prisoner who had smallpox, contracted the disease and died. Consequently, Oglethorpe and several colleagues drew up a plan for establishment of a new British settlement in America to give England’s “worthy poor” opportunities to start life anew in the New World as farmers, merchants and artisans who would work their owned land.
In 1732, the king approved the Corporate Charter of Georgia, of which the group’s members became “trustees.” The charter established a corporation for a period of only 21 years governed by the trustees. It required registration of all land grants to settlers. Land registrars (clerks) were its first official, designated officers. The job was so important that the registrar reported directly to the trustees.
In 1776, Georgia adopted a constitution that established a system of superior courts in each county, with no provision for a higher court to which appeals of superior court could be made. It provided for a judge of superior court, a clerk of superior court and a sheriff. The judge served in a circuit, but each county had a clerk of superior court and a sheriff. Essentially, the state was run by superior-court judges, sheriffs and clerks of superior court.
Clerk of superior court has been an elected county constitutional office since 1989. The primary reason for electing clerks is to provide them independence and legally empower them to protect and permanently preserve the records over which they are custodians, to concentrate their energies on performance of their statutory duties, and enable clerks to resist undue external pressure from anyone to alter or destroy court or land records.
Currently, there are more than 4 million separate tracts of land in Georgia, excluding lands held by the state, churches or public-utility companies, amounting to property values of approximately $1 trillion. Evidence of all privately and publicly held property, from small lots to skyscrapers, is entrusted entirely to the custodianship of clerks of superior court.
The clerk is required by law to permanently archive all land records, including deeds, liens and plats. Those records are public records and may be viewed or copied by anyone as a means for providing to the world written evidence of ownership, security interests and property boundaries.
In 1985, I became one of the first clerks of superior court in the nation to automate the land records and have since been working diligently to electronically re-create Liberty County land records from 1789 through 1984. Currently, land records dating back to 1965 may be accessed and copied online on the Georgia Superior Court Clerks’ Cooperative Authority’s website at www.gsccca.org.
Wilkes is the Liberty County clerk of superior court and administrator for the county’s state, juvenile and magistrate courts.