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Only lawyers allowed to run for this local office?

One local elected office will be reserved exclusively for attorneys from here on out, if Fayette officials get their wish. The office of Fayette County Magistrate, of which there are four part-time judges here, would require any candidate to have either practiced law for seven years or been a magistrate for seven years.

The latter language was added to grandfather in the only one of Fayette’s four magistrates who is not a lawyer: Joe Tinsley.

The changes will require a local bill to be approved in the Georgia General Assembly to amend the current legislation governing the Fayette County Magistrate Court. At its Thursday night meeting, the Fayette County Commission unanimously approved a resolution seeking the changes.

County Attorney Scott Bennett explained that with the magistrates’ “small claims” courts being authorized to dispose of civil cases for larger amounts of money, in many cases plaintiffs and defendants are hiring attorneys for representation instead of making their own case themselves. That can cause difficulty for a magistrate who is not an attorney and familiar with the legal process, Bennett said.

The current limit on filing a civil cases in magistrate court is $15,000.

Also, requiring all Fayette magistrates to be attorneys will allow them to help out other Fayette courts if the need ever arises, Bennett said.

Also approved in the resolution is an effort to tie the magistrate’s salaries to those of Superior Court judges. That would mean that any raises for magistrates would be ultimately in the hands of the Georgia Legislature, which authorizes the pay for Superior Court judges, instead of the Fayette County Commission.

In addition to hearing civil cases, Fayette’s magistrates hold bond hearings to determine and set bond for defendants charged with crimes. Magistrates also hold hearings to determine if there is probable cause to bind defendants over for trial in Fayette County Superior Court.

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