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.

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.”

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Local

Alaska man gets a 'pass' after pleading guilty to assaulting woman
Alaska man gets a 'pass' after pleading guilty to assaulting woman

An Alaska man escaped jail time Wednesday after pleading guilty to assaulting a woman who said he sexually assaulted and strangled her until she lost consciousness, KTVA reported. >> Read more trending news  Justin Schneider, 34, of Anchorage, was convicted on four felony charges -- including kidnapping and assault -- and a misdemeanor...
Henry County cops fire shots at suspect who drove car at them, GBI says
Henry County cops fire shots at suspect who drove car at them, GBI says

The GBI is investigating an officer-involved shooting Saturday morning in Henry County after a driver allegedly drove toward two officers during a traffic stop. Around 1:30 a.m., two Henry County police officers attempted to pull over a car on I-75, but the driver tried to flee, the GBI said in a news release. Officers chased the suspect into a cul-de-sac...
3D-printed gun creator wanted on child sex charge arrested at Taiwan hotel
3D-printed gun creator wanted on child sex charge arrested at Taiwan hotel

The creator of the 3D-printed gun was arrested Friday in Taiwan after being accused of sexual assault in Texas, CNN reported Saturday. >> Read more trending news  A warrant to arrest Cody Wilson, 30, was issued earlier this week after allegations that he had sex with a 16-year-old girl he met on an adult dating site, according to police...
More details released about 2-headed baby snake
More details released about 2-headed baby snake

A state herpetologist released new details about a two-headed baby Eastern copperhead snake found outside a home in Woodbridge, Virginia, WTVR reported. The snake was examined at the Wildlife Center of Virginia. >> Read more trending news  The center received the snake on Sept. 20, according to the center’s website. ...
Ole Miss considers changing name of journalism school after namesake's social media post
Ole Miss considers changing name of journalism school after namesake's social media post

The University of Mississippi is considering changing the name of its School of Journalism after receiving major backlash stemming from a controversial post made on Facebook by the school’s namesake.  >> Read more trending news  Ed Meek is a well-known and respected alumnus of Ole Miss, as well as a significant booster for...
More Stories