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The Georgia Appellate Jurisdiction Reform Act of 2016

The Appellate Jurisdiction Reform Act of 2016

In the spring of 2016, Governor Nathan Deal signed into law House Bill 927, the Appellate Jurisdiction Reform Act of 2016, significantly altering the jurisdictional structure of the Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. The Act also changes other aspects of the appellate system, including the addition of two seats on the Georgia Supreme Court.

Jurisdictional shift to the Court of Appeals

Under Article VI, Section VI, Paragraph III of the Georgia Constitution, the Supreme Court is provided with jurisdiction over the following cases:

  • Cases involving title to land
  • All equity cases
  • All cases involving wills
  • All habeas corpus cases
  • All cases involving extraordinary remedies
  • All divorce and alimony cases
  • All cases certified to it by the Court of Appeals
  • All cases in which a sentence of death was imposed or could be imposed

The Georgia Constitution provides, however, that jurisdiction in such cases may be changed by legislation, and the 2016 Act does just that. Under O.C.G.A. § 15-3-3.1 (Section 3-1 of the Act), the Court of Appeals now has jurisdiction over:

  • Cases involving title to land
  • All equity cases, except those cases concerning proceedings in which a sentence of death was imposed or could be imposed and those cases concerning the execution of a sentence of death
  • All cases involving wills
  • All cases involving extraordinary remedies, except those cases concerning proceedings in which a sentence of death was imposed or could be imposed and those cases concerning the execution of a sentence of death
  • All divorce and alimony cases
  • All other cases not reserved to the Supreme Court or conferred on other courts

Thus, the Court of Appeals is now the first appellate stop for many cases previously reserved to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court retains exclusive jurisdiction over criminal, equity, and extraordinary remedies cases in which death was, or could have been, imposed, as well as habeas corpus matters. It also retains the exclusive jurisdiction provided by Article VI, Section VI, Paragraph II of the Georgia Constitution for election contests and “[a]ll cases involving the construction of a treaty or of the Constitution of the State of Georgia or of the United States and all cases in which the constitutionality of a law, ordinance, or constitutional provision has been drawn in question.”

It should be noted that the jurisdictional shift does not otherwise affect the appellate procedures required for filing an appeal. Therefore, the provisions of O.C.G.A. § 5-6-34, for interlocutory appeals, and O.C.G.A. § 5-6-35, for discretionary applications, must still be considered. The Supreme Court retains the jurisdiction to consider writs of certiorari to review cases previously under its exclusive jurisdiction once those cases are ruled upon by the Court of Appeals.

These new jurisdictional rules apply to cases in which a notice of appeal or application to appeal was filed on or after January 1, 2017, per Section 6-1(c) of the Act. Cases already on appeal on that date remain subject to the current jurisdictional rules.

Additional Supreme Court justices, and new Court of Appeals Judges

The Act amends O.C.G.A. § 15-2-1.1 to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court from seven to nine. The Georgia Constitution (Article VI, Section VI, Paragraph I) provides for a Supreme Court of “not more than nine justices,” and therefore this expansion could be accomplished legislatively without a constitutional amendment. The new appointees for these positions, Justices Britt Grant and Nels Peterson, took office on January 1, 2017. Under O.C.G.A. § 15-2-10, these new appointees took office on January 1, 2017, and will stand for re-election in 2018, with the successful candidates beginning six-year terms on January 1, 2019.

Along with Justices Grant and Peterson, former Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs was also appointed as justice and took office on January 1 to replace the retiring Chief Justice Hugh Thompson. And Judges Charlie Bethel, Tripp Self, and Clyde Reese have joined the Court of Appeals, taking the place of now-Justices Michael Boggs and Nels Peterson and retired Judge Herbert Phipps.

Changes to terms of court and rules for decisions

Through the end of 2016, the Supreme Court operated on January, April, and September terms, with the January and September terms beginning on the first Monday of those months, and the April term beginning on the third Monday of April. See O.C.G.A. § 15-2-4. The Court of Appeals adopted the same terms as the Supreme Court under O.C.G.A. § 15-3-2. As amended by the Act, the appellate courts now operate on December, April, and August terms, with each term beginning on the first Monday of the respective month. This amendment was effective with the December term that began December 5, 2016. The prior provisions requiring second-term cases to be decided before the final 15 days of a term remain in effect, as does the Constitutional “two-term” rule, requiring all cases to be decided no later than the end of the term following the term into which the case was docketed.

Finally, the Act eliminates the statutory rules for the Court of Appeals governing the method by which cases are heard by more than one division and the effect of such judgments. See O.C.G.A. § 15-3-1. Previously, the statute established the situations in which cases were to be heard by multiple panels or the whole court, as well as the requirements for overruling precedent. Such matters are now generally left to the Court of Appeals to govern under its own rules, although the statute provides that a quorum of nine judges is necessary in any case decided by more than one panel, with two judges required for single-division cases. This provision became effective July 1, 2016, following the addition of three new Court of Appeals judges on January 1, 2016.

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