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“Let Justice be Done though the Heavens May Fall”

September 9, 2014
Georgia's 3 Supreme Court justices in the late 19th century

The formation of our Georgia Supreme Court began on a long and treacherous path. Thankfully, the founders persevered so that we have a better system today.

After the American Revolution (1775-83), many states created a Supreme Court to look over the decisions mandated by the trial courts. However, it was a good 50 years before Georgia created a structure for external review of court decisions.

Between 1783 and 1835, Georgia was divided into 11 Superior Court circuits that each reviewed themselves — no external review. In 1835, they decided the Georgia Constitution needed to change. But a decade went by before they took any action.

In 1845, the General Assembly acknowledge this change by creating the Judges Act, which stated that Georgia would have a 3-judge Supreme Court. The judges were elected by a majority vote from the legislature. 

Three justices were picked to form the Georgia Supreme Court on Dec. 16, 1845:

  • Joseph Henry Lumpkin (from Athens and Lexington)
  • Hiram Warner (from Massachusetts)
  • Eugenius Nisbet (from Macon)

They had their first meeting on Jan. 26, 1846 but didn’t hear any arguments until March. They were tasked with hearing all the appeals in each circuit where the original trial occurred. So, the justices rode around to 9 of the 11 different circuits hearing each case. That first year they overturned 44 trial decisions, upheld 28 trial decisions, overturned 4 murder cases and heard 7 criminal cases. They paid their own expenses and traveled over 1,000 miles (with only 300 miles on railroad) on a salary of $2,500 per year.

Not an ideal job.

The General Assembly still questioned the need of a Georgia Supreme Court, especially because the Georgia State Constitution gave the judges “no original jurisdiction,” forcing them only to correct errors that the superior courts may have made in each circuit. So in 1858, the General Assembly passed another act placing the full force of law behind each decision made by the judges.

This was great news. Everyone was finally on the same page. However, the workload continued to increase. The workload became so overwhelming that 2 justices died from exhaustion in the late 19th century. After the Chief Justice resigned in 1894, state leaders decided to expand the court from 3 judges to 6 and they would be elected by the people rather than the General Assembly.

However, again, the workload remained monstrous. In 1906, they created the Georgia Court of Appeals with 3 judges (this number expanded to 12 in 1999) to help ease the amount of work for the Supreme Court. Then in 1945 the Georgia Supreme Court grew again to 7 justices. Today there is still talk about increasing that number to 9, but nothing has been set in stone.

The American government was formed in order to be malleable and change with the times, so we’ll never have a set structure. With that in mind, it’s good to know the history behind our government because it helps us understand why things are the way they are.

Many other stories and artifacts reside on the top floor of the Georgia State Capitol — known as the Capitol Museum. Feel free to learn more by going on a guided tour of the Capitol Museum

Photo Courtesy of the Georgia State Capitol Museum

About the Author

Bethany McDaniel is the Editorial Director for GeorgiaGov. She graduated from Berry College in Rome, Ga., with degrees in Visual Communication and History.

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