Somewhat obscured by the social-issue hubbub during the recently ended session of the Georgia General Assembly was the enactment of an historic expansion of the Georgia Supreme Court and a reallocation of not only its appellate jurisdiction but also that of the Georgia Court of Appeals.
Under the legislation, HB 927, signed by Gov. Nathan Deal on May 3, 2016, the Georgia Supreme Court expands from seven to nine justices, with the two additional justices to be appointed for a two-year term by Gov. Deal. An election for full six-year terms will be held in 2018.
The new nine-member Supreme Court will no longer have original appellate jurisdiction of the following classes of cases:
- cases involving title to land;
- all equity cases, except those cases concerning proceedings in which a death sentence was imposed or could be imposed (i.e., murder cases);
- all cases involving wills;
- all cases involving extraordinary remedies, with the same murder exception;
- all divorce and alimony cases; and
- all other cases not reserved to the Supreme Court or conferred on other courts.
O.C.G.A. § 15-3-3.1. Jurisdiction of these cases is now vested in the Georgia Court of Appeals, which was itself enlarged, to 15 judges, during the 2015 legislative session. Review of decisions of the Court of Appeals in those areas will be available by certiorari. The shuttling of cases back and forth between the two courts should now largely come to an end.
The Georgia Supreme Court retains jurisdiction conferred on it by art. VI, § 6, ¶ 3 of the Georgia Constitution over “[a]ll habeas corpus cases” and retains constitutionally-mandated exclusive appellate jurisdiction over all cases involving the construction of a treaty or the Georgia or United States Constitutions and over election contests. Ga. Const. art. VI, § 6, ¶ 2.
The new jurisdictional limitations will take effect in cases in which a notice of appeal or a petition for interlocutory appeal is filed after January 1, 2017. For those litigants in pending cases contemplating the possibility of an appeal in the upcoming months, the appellate landscape has shifted dramatically. Instead of convincing four justices of the Supreme Court, an appellant now first must convince two judges (at least) of the Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, the legislation authorizes the Court of Appeals to adopt rules governing how its own precedents may be overturned and how many judges become involved when a member of a three-judge division dissents. When the court had 12 members, that number was seven. HB 927 repeals the provision that specified that process in the former 12-member court and now leaves the subject to rules to be adopted by the Court of Appeals. The only legislative stipulation is that nine judges are required for a quorum in the Court of Appeals when a case is decided by more than a single three-member division. O.C.G.A. § 15-3-1(c)(2).
In addition to jurisdictional changes, the legislation simplifies the three terms of each of the appellate courts, now set for a December term beginning the first Monday in December; an April term beginning the first Monday in April; and an August term beginning the first Monday in August. O.C. G. A. § 15-2-4(b).
HB 927 was a product of the Georgia Appellate Jurisdiction Review Commission and did not go through the State Bar of Georgia’s review process.