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What is a Court of General Sessions?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated May 17, 2024
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A court of general sessions refers to a court with limited jurisdiction to hear minor criminal and civil cases within the United States court system. When the original U.S. colonies were formed, the founders of the Constitution adopted the court system used in England, which was called the courts of quarter sessions. Most state courts evolved over time into municipal courts, district courts and justice courts that handle criminal and civil matters. A few states still utilize a court of general sessions, but the court’s function has changed somewhat over time.

The criminal division of a court of general sessions handles misdemeanor cases when the defendant waives the right to a jury trial. Judges presiding over these courts also hear all preliminary hearings in criminal cases. A preliminary hearing helps a judge determine whether there is enough evidence to send the case to a higher court. A court of common sessions issues restraining orders and is responsible for enforcing those orders. In most of these courts, a circuit judge presides over hearings.

When civil matters are heard in a court of general sessions, it sometimes is called the court of common pleas. This system is similar to small claims courts, which handle routine civil cases that fall below a set monetary limit that varies by location. A court of common pleas is the venue where a landlord can file eviction proceedings. A judge presides over all cases in a court of common pleas, meaning that a litigant may not request a jury trial in these courtrooms. Usually, the court provides forms and guidelines for filing paperwork to request a hearing, because a lawyer is not needed for most proceedings.

The original 13 colonies favored the English judicial system called the court of quarter sessions. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, judges who presided over these courts typically had no legal training whatsoever. As the states formed independent legislatures and state constitutions, the court of quarter sessions was abolished in favor of the court of general sessions and court of common pleas. This separated civil and criminal matters. Over time, most counties adopted a justice of the peace or similar system to handle both types of cases.

The clerk of the court of general sessions is responsible for a overseeing a case from inception to its final disposition. The court clerk organizes the docket and notifies defendants or litigants of trial dates. He or she also maintains computer files of all cases and handles questions from the public about the trials and court system. A court of common session clerk holds the authority to issue show cause orders and provides applications to defendants for restricted driver’s licenses if ordered by the judge.

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