The Supreme Court of Georgia (top row, from left): Chief Justice Harris Hines; Justice Carol Hunstein; Justice David Nahmias; (second row, from left): Justice Robert Benham, Justice Keith Blackwell, Justice Britt Grant; (third row, from left): Justice Michael Boggs, Justice Harold Melton, Justice Nels Peterson. (Photos by David Barnes / AJC)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A new era for Georgia’s highest court

Nine justices take their seats, with a new chief

The Supreme Court of Georgia set some precedents Monday: a new chief justice, a newly expanded court with nine — not seven — justices and a newly renovated bench to accommodate the two additional members.

Harris Hines, sworn in as chief justice on Friday, welcomed the courtroom gallery to “this historical setting and this historical session” of the state’s highest court. Before hearing arguments on four cases, Justice Carol Hunstein introduced the court’s newest members.

The occasion also emphasized Gov. Nathan Deal’s extraordinary imprint on the state’s judiciary. Thanks to legislation enacted over the past two years, Deal has filled two new seats on the Supreme Court and three new ones on the Georgia Court of Appeals.

There are now 24 seats on Georgia’s top two appellate courts. Half of them — four Supreme Court justices and eight Appeals Court judges — have been appointed by Deal.

Atlanta lawyer Randy Evans, Deal’s attorney and co-chair of the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission, said he hopes the more conservative-leaning courts will create a more favorable legal environment for businesses. He noted the Georgia Supreme Court just made the American Tort Reform Association’s most recent watch list as a potential “Judicial Hell Holes— a jurisdiction more prone to rule against businesses in civil litigation.

“I wonder if Georgia will be on that list again next year,” Evans said. “My hope is it won’t.”

In November, Deal made three appointments to the Supreme Court:

  • Michael Boggs, 54, who co-chairs Deal’s criminal justice reform council, once served as a state legislator, a trial court judge and a judge on the Court of Appeals. (Boggs replaced Hugh Thompson, who retired as chief justice in January.)
  • Britt Grant, 38, the court’s third woman justice, once worked on domestic policy issues at the White House for former President George W. Bush and more recently as solicitor general in the state Attorney General’s Office.
  • Nels Peterson, 38, a former Court of Appeals judge, once served as executive counsel to former Gov. Sonny Perdue, state solicitor general and vice chancellor for legal affairs and secretary to the university system’s Board of Regents.
Chief Justice P. Harris Hines and other justices listen during oral arguments in Atlanta, on Monday. The Georgia Supreme Court is meeting for the first time this year with a new chief justice and two additional justices. (David Barnes / dbarnes@ajc.com)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The legislation signed into law last year by Deal not only increased the number of judges on the state’s highest court, it also pared back the court’s jurisdiction.

Beginning this year, the state Supreme Court will no longer automatically hear appeals in a number of cases. These include divorce and alimony contests; title to land disputes; and cases involving the construction and validity of wills. All those will now go directly to the 15-member Court of Appeals.

The state Supreme Court will continue to decide all appeals of murder and death-penalty cases. It also retains jurisdiction over election contests, lawyer and judicial discipline and habeas corpus petitions, which are lawsuits filed by inmates challenging their incarceration.

With the reduced caseload, the state high court is expected to accept more discretionary appeals of rulings issued by the Court of Appeals.

At the Court of Appeals, decisions are often delivered by three-judge panels, not the entire court as is always the case with the state Supreme Court. For this reason, some three-judge panel decisions on the appeals court are in conflict with decisions issued by other panels.

“If the Supreme Court is going to hear more cases from the Court of Appeals to try and clarify the law, that would serve a good purpose,” said Rome attorney Norman Fletcher, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

Law professor Anthony Kreis, who has closely followed Georgia’s courts, questioned the need for the Legislature to expand the state’s highest court.

“It felt more like a power play than anything else,” said Kreis, now with the Chicago-Kent College of Law. “As a general matter, we should always be cautious when increasing the number of judges in the system that such a move is done to improve judicial efficiency and not to pack the courts with judges more in line with the current governing coalition’s ideology.”

Whatever the reason, one thing is certain, Kreis added. “Given he’s made so many appointments to the state’s appellate courts, there is no doubt Governor Deal has dramatically influenced the future of Georgia law for years to come.”