Supreme Court of Georgia

On Tuesday, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a Fulton man’s convictions would be reversed due to an improperly worded verdict form. Cheddersingh v. State, S11A1929.

In 2008, Soniel Cheddersingh was convicted of malice murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and possession of firearm by a convicted felon. At trial, the jury was given as set of written jury instructions, including a preprinted verdict form. The verdict form stated: “As to the offense of Murder (O.C.G.A. § 16-15-1), we the Jury unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt find the Defendant _______.” Below the blank space were the words “Guilty or Not Guilty.” The remaining charges were formatted similarly.

The Court held that the verdict form erroneously instructed jurors that to find the defendant not guilty, they had to do so “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This error would mislead jurors about the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof, and could cause a reasonable juror to believe that the defendant has the burden of proving his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. Despite proper oral instructions by the judge prior to jury deliberations, as well as sufficient evidence against the defendant, the Court reversed all of Cheddersingh’s charges. Justice Hines, writing for the Court, reasoned that:

“The presumption of innocence is fundamental to a fair trial and a conviction resulting from a procedure in which the trial court misinformed the jury regarding that presumption affects not only the fairness of that proceeding itself, but public confidence in the judicial process as a whole.”

According to one report, it is unclear how many verdicts were potentially contaminated by the erroneous verdict form.

This case reminds appellate lawyers of a few important points:

  • Look for issues everywhere. Even in the boring pattern jury instructions and verdict forms. This part of the analysis is always tedious to me, but it’s necessary.
  • If it seems too simple to be true, it still might be an issue. I can’t help but wonder how many other lawyers overlooked the issue in Cheddersingh because it was so obvious.
  • When reading jury instructions and other materials given to the jury, analyze them as though you are not a lawyer. Everyone who went to law school knows that the burden of proof is on the State, not a criminal defendant, but lay people don’t always know this, which accounts for the holding in this case. Make sure that the jury instructions give all of the elements of the offense and cannot be construed to mean something other than what the law allows.
  • Double check all of your pending appeals for erroneous jury instructions and verdict forms (if you haven’t already).

The Supreme Court has granted two petitions for certiorari and one application for discretionary appeal so far this month. Below is an overview of each case

Bunn v. State

In its Order granting Cert., from September 6, 2011, the Court notes that it is particularly concerned with the following issue:

Does the Child Hearsay Statute allow a witness to testify as to what one of the defendant’s victims said she saw done to a second victim? See OCGA Section 24-3-16; Woodard v. State, 269 Ga. 317 (1998); Assad v. State, 195 Ga. App. 692 (1990). See also Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004).

The opinion form the Court of Appeals may be accessed here. The COA opinion was authored by Judge Smith, who wrote for a unanimous panel with Judges Mikell and Adams.

The Cert. petition has been pending for approximately 9 months from the time that the COA denied reconsideration on December 14, 2010

Jones v. State

On September 12, 2011, the Court entered an Order granting cert, noting that it wished to consider two issues:

  1. Did the Court of Appeals err in upholding the trial court’s denial of Jones’ request for a subpoena? See Yeary v. State, 289 Ga. 394 (2011).
  2. Did the court of Appeals err in holding that the trial court was authorized to conclude that Jones’ encounter with the police trooper at Jones’ truck was consensual?

The opinion cannot be found because the Court of Appeals Ordered that it not be officially published. Judge Ellington wrote for a unanimous panel joined by Andrews and Doyle. This case is another in a continuing saga by defense attorneys to obtain the source code for the intoxilyzer machine, a popular device used by law enforcement to measure blood alcohol concentration, with an added twist of a Fourth Amendment issue.

Notice of Intent was filed on March 17, 2010, and the cert petition was pending approximately 5 months before cert. was granted.

Harper v. State

On September 23, 2011, the Court granted an interlocutory appeal on this case. The case comes to the Court by way of transfer from the Court of Appeals because there is a constitutional questions involved. The Petitioner is indicted for a violation of RICO, involving allegations of theft from Glock, the company that manufactures firearms. The constitutional issue is whether the provision that extends the statute of limitations for offenses where a victim is over the age of 65 violates equal protection where, as here, the victim is a senior citizen who is a multimillionaire, runs a multi-billion dollar corporation, and is likely heavily armed (I editorialized the heavily armed stuff. It’s not really part of the opinion). Justices Nahmias and Carley dissented from the grant of interlocutory appeal.


Above the Law has a good recent post on the use of video arraignments and how judges find that the process makes them feel safer. I don’t know whether video Arraignments make the process any safer or not. But the process certainly makes the process more efficient. In fact, many of the rituals of court aren’t just antiquated. They’re anachronistic. The other part of the article that I liked was a link to a story from a few months ago about Judge David Emerson’s decision to allow a defense attorney to call a witness at trial via Skype. These posts point to a good future for those of us who participate in the appellate and post-conviction process in Georgia.

There is an annoying thing you sign up for when you do post-conviction work in Georgia. And that is a clientele located hundreds of miles from where the lawyers and most of the witnesses are. Chances are that your appellate client will be located in South Georgia, and there will be an issue of whether to produce him for court. For the client, being produced for the hearing and returning to prison means starting back at square one as a new inmate at the facility. That situation can result in a complete upheaval of the client’s life, essentially representing a move to a new dorm with different cellmates. For the court, it means expense and potential security issues.

When the case ends, appellate counsel often becomes the witness in the former client’s habeas case, entailing another drive to a distant city. In fact, the whole show travels south, with assistant attorneys general driving down for court with boxes of files. The whole thing is needlessly inefficient and expensive.

There is no reason that much of the process couldn’t be done over Skype. Already, oral arguments at the Supreme Court are being done that way (not via Skype but by video feed from satellite locations in south Georgia). Arraignments and probation hearings are being done that way.

Why couldn’t attorney visits be done via Skype? And certainly why couldn’t court be done that way. The process would have several other advantages.

  • It would allow for more frequent meetings. Right now, a single visit requires a day (and sometimes two if you have to stay over) away.
  • It would make court run faster.
  • It would provide for better security. There would be fewer people in the room to protect.
  • The personnel cost savings would be significant.
  • Cases would move more quickly
  • There would be fewer appellate issues involving transfers and other weird little things that arise in the habeas setting right now.
  • There would be fewer continuances due to lawyer and witness unavailability.

In fact, it would allow appellate practices to be more efficient. Right now, many appellate lawyers face a tough choice. Do they want to put the work into working on these tough cases, which the clients want their lawyers to do. Or do they want to take time out from writing the briefs and reviewing records to meet with and reassure the client about the work that isn’t getting done during the day it takes to drive to the prison and have the meeting? Right now, there are tough choices to be made between working on the cases and driving around the state merely to talk things over with clients and family. The adoption of video could really eliminate some of these tough choices.

We can only hope that prisons and habeas courts will follow Judge Emerson’s excellent example.

It’s been a bad month for my most recent crop of Supreme Court cases, both in terms of cases where I represent the party and in cases where I am amicus counsel. But I try to learn from them all. And here’s my takeaway from the month. To have and cite a case is not the end of the story, particularly if the precedent was set in the Court of Appeals and hasn’t been heard yet by the Supreme Court. This was the lesson I take away from State v. Thackston. The Supreme Court there overturned a few decade’s worth of precedent to hold that the exclusionary rule does not apply in the probation revocation context. Blue Line Lawyer aptly points out that officers who search in violation of the 4th Amendment can still be held liable  in a civil rights action. Then again, we’re in the 11th Circuit. My initial reaction was, “this is terrible.” Then came Black Monday, where two cases of mine (one as amicus counsel and another as party counsel) went south. I’ve now had a few days to reflect. And during that time I was writing a brief in a murder case.

In that murder case,an issue arose where the precedent looked pretty bad on an issue. So, taking some advice from an appellate judge who spoke to my class earlier this year, I dug a little deeper to see what lies behind the holding in the recent cases. I took the Court of Appeals holding that I did not like, and I began tracing the precedent backward, all the way back to when the Supreme Court first commented on it. How old was the case? It involved a search incident to arrest in a buggy (the horse-drawn variety). I learned that the Court of Appeals, in the 1970s and 1980s took the line of cases from the Supreme Court and twice took the precedent way out of context. And the Supreme Court never adopted the new reasoning. If the Supreme Court could reverse decades of precedent from Thackston because it wasn’t their precedent, then surely they wouldn’t appreciate the Court of Appeals taking their case law out of context and expanding it.

But my point is that it is important not to view precedent as the end of the story, particularly if the Supreme Court has never visited it before or if a line of precedent has developed in both courts. It’s important to track the history of the cases with Article I, Section 1, Paragraph 3 in mind (“The decisions of the Court of Appeals insofar as not in conflict with those of the Supreme Court shall bind all courts except the Supreme Court as precedent.”). In the murder case, the Thackston case reminded me that the bad case I found wasn’t necessarily the end of the story. And an issue I might have been tempted to abandon became a significant part of the brief. With a Supreme Court more willing than ever to consider old arguments anew, it is important to look a little deeper even if the first wave of cases on your Lexis or Westlaw search are less than inspiring.

Yesterday, I noticed that there is a proposed rule from the State Bar of Georgia to provide for electronic filing in Georgia courts. Of course, it’s just a proposed rule (PDF). And what comes of it may be simply a model rule for trial courts to follow if they choose to allow electronic filing. But it also might be light at the end of the tunnel for lawyers like me who are way sick of paper. In fact, the way trial courts work right now in the handling of documents is enough to make me want to poke my eyeballs out with a spoon. It’s not exactly fun to figure out a way to get a physical document to some distant land by 5:00 tomorrow to meet a deadline on a motion for new trial or habeas matter, and e filing would fix it. It’s also not fun to file a document in the courthouse basement and wonder how or when the judge on the case might learn of it.

In the late 1980s, when I was in high school, I worked for a law firm as their courier. My job was to go to various courthouses and file documents with various clerks, get the file stamp, and take physical copies to opposing counsel. The process seemed almost quaint then.

This year, I am approaching my 20-year high school reunion. And we’re still handling documents the exact same way in trial courts. Assembling the record for appeal, with a few exceptions, is still exactly the same process that it was the year the Titanic sank. I’m not sure what the issue is. Part of it is that lawyers can be un-innovative. For instance, what other profession is still using fax machines?

A uniform rule for e filing is, I hope, a step toward mandatory e filing in the future. Perhaps, then, I can retire the postage meter, and getting a leave of absence for a trip to Disney World or the filing of a conflict letter won’t burn a whole day every week for an assistant. It’ll have to be mandatory though. There are over 150 counties and Georgia and a blue million lawyers. Most will have to be sent kicking and screaming into the e filing era.

At the State Bar’s annual meeting, Chief Justice Hunstein announced that the Supreme Court of Georgia will require e filing there by the end of the summer and will soon move to the second phase of their e filing initiative to provide for the transmission of electronic records from trial courts.

My operation is paperless. I take notes on my iPad, my phone, or my laptop, and I maintain electronic files with a system for dealing with text notes and pdfs. It works great except for a few sets of occasions in my practice. One is when I visit an inmate in the prison system at a facility that won’t let my iPad or laptop in. You’ll see me often in distant lands buying convenience store paper and pen. The second is when I am in court and need to use paper with a witness or to fill out paperwork (you’ll see me borrowing pens a lot). The third is when I have any case in Butts County, Monroe County, or Lamar County where they equate electronic devices on par with weapons and refuse to allow anything but paper files in. The other is when I am working with co-counsel or opposing counsel that fetishizes paper (which is most of the bar, unfortunately).

The proposed rule will hopefully move us toward a system of file management throughout Georgia that is, if not in the 21st century, will at least be circa 1999.

Two days at the annual meeting of the State Bar of Georgia in Myrtle Beach have given me enough material for a week of blogging. For today, the big news is that the Supreme Court will mandate e-filing for all attorneys before the end of the summer and will create a system for submission of appellate records in electronic form. E-filing was also the talk of the Appellate Practice Section luncheon, with Judge Keith Blackwell discussing the need for a a uniform system for indexing the record on appeal.

Kathleen Joyner, with the Fulton Daily Report, shared a story of some matters I e-filed with the Supreme Court of Georgia on my way out here (don’t worry, I wasn’t driving)

Calendar.JPGAs a father of three children (one still in a car seat and one in a booster) and as an appeals lawyer in Georgia, I get two recurring and related questions. From the children, on car trips, I frequently hear, “Are we there yet?” From my clients and their families, I frequently hear, “when will the court decide my case?” For the former, there never really is an answer. Atlanta traffic mandates that today’s twenty-minute trip will be tomorrow’s three hour journey. But for the client’s question, there’s a pretty straightforward answer. And I always have to look it up. But after I finish this post, I won’t have to look it up again and neither will you.

One caveat. I’m speaking of direct appeals only in this post. The timing for applications from habeas, cert. petitions, interlocutory applications, or applications for discretionary review is a good subject for another post. And if any of those things get anywhere, though, you’ll find yourself back in a situation where merits briefs have been submitted, the case has been argued, and you’re waiting for a decision. Then you’ll get this question. And when you find yourself there, this post is for you.


The Two-Term Rule

We’re lucky here in Georgia. If cases aren’t decided in two terms of court in the Georgia Court of Appeals or Supreme Court of Georgia, they’re affirmed by operation of law. In the whole history of Georgia, a case has never been affirmed this way (cases have been remanded and docketed creatively as a work-around, but such a situation is truly rare).

Our two-term rule is a creature of the Georgia Constitution. In Article 6, Section 9, Paragraph 2 of the Georgia Constitution, you will find this language: “The Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals shall dispose of every case at the term for which it is entered on the court’s docket for hearing or at the next term.”


When Does the Countdown Start?

The clock starts running in the term that the case would be set for oral argument, if oral argument were held. This provision is a little tricky. What if you don’t get oral argument or don’t ask for it? Check out your docketing notice. It will tell you when oral argument would take place if such were set. Regardless of whether you have oral argument, the clock starts ticking in the term of court oral argument would happen, if at all (regardless of whether oral argument ever actually does happen).

The Court must come to a decision in your case in the term of court when argument is set or the term of court immediately afterward.


But What are the Terms of Court?

The Supreme Court of Georgia and the Georgia Court of Appeals each have the following three terms every year:

  • The January Term begins the first Monday in January (the January term ends on April 14; 15 days before that is March 31)
  • The April Term begins the third Monday in April (the April term ends on July 31; 15 days before that is July 16)
  • The September Term begins the first Monday in September (the September term ends on December 16; 15 days before that is December 1)

By law, no second term case can be decided within the last fifteen days of the term, except upon a motion for reconsideration. So, if your case reaches the term, do the math accordingly (or check out the parentheticals above).

If you want to cite to something more authoritative than Scott Key’s blog (yes, there could be such a thing), the terms of court and their closing dates may be found at OCGA Section 15-2-4. And the law that makes the terms of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals the same is OCGA Section 15-3-2.


Yellow Card.jpgIf any case qualifies as an old chestnut, it would be Mapp v. Ohio, the landmark case that provided that evidence gathered in violation of a suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights should be excluded from use at trial. Restricting the use of illegally-gathered evidence is the punishment for the illegal conduct. If there’s a case that high schoolers might read about in a civics or government class, this is it. Mapp is hardly cutting edge law in Georgia. Or is it?

There are two cases in the Georgia Supreme Court right now that test out the boundaries of the exclusionary rule. One case might expand its reach, and another might limit it. Both of these cases are fascinating and will have far-reaching implications for Georgia lawyers in the future.

  • State v. Hulon Thackston – The Supreme Court granted certiorari to ask the following question: Does the exclusionary rule apply in probation revocation hearings as a matter of Federal or State Constitutional law? Assuming that this question is answered in the affirmative, there are inquiries in the cert. order. The other interesting questions is whether the doctrine of collateral estoppel applies when a trial court grants a motion to suppress in a new substantive case and later seeks to introduce the evidence in a probation hearing were the revocation petition arose out of the same facts and circumstances. In the Court of Appeals, the Court assumed that the exclusionary rule does apply and found that the doctrine of collateral estoppel does apply in such a factual scenario. The Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is filing an amicus brief in this case.
  • State v. Aron Mussman – The Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case (PDF) to determine, in part, what the proper remedy is where the State fails to preserve physical evidence containing biological material which is relevant to determining the identity of the actual perpetrator. The case involves a charge of vehicular homicide, where the State released a totalled car to the defendant, who was in a car that was wrecked and where the vehicle’s other occupant was killed. Police concluded that the defendant was the driver but did not charge him until after they released the car and it was unavailable for testing by defense experts. A divided panel in the Georgia Court of Appeals determined that the State had failed to preserve the vehicle pursuant to a statute that requires the preservation of biological evidence. However, one of the three judges reasoned that the exclusionary rule should apply where this statute is violated. I was the amicus author for GACDL in the Court of Appeals and will be preparing one at the Georgia Supreme Court as well. So, I have a few thoughts on this subject.

One way or another, Georgia could be in for a big change.

Before I weigh in on this topic as a lawyer, I’d like to analogize this issue as a parent. All the books I read in my first year as a parent to the contrary, parenting is more an art than it is a science. And part of the art is determining when to punish for bad behavior and what the best punishment is. Punish too harsly or inappropriately, and you cause harm. Punish lightly, and your child might opt for the behavior with the punishment as just a cost of doing business.

The State has reached a pretty global solution for bad conduct with respect to the criminally accused. But how do we punish the wrongdoers when they are State actors engaged in investigating our clients?

If the police can enter a residence, search it, find incriminating evidence, and later use it in court, you can’t put them in time out. You can’t spank them. A fine for such conduct might simply become another “cost” of enforcing the law. The exclusionary rule is the best punishment for such conduct. 

What happens if the police are required to preserve biological evidence for later testing where there is fear that some court down the road might order that the evidence be retested and throw open the entire case? Flush the evidence? If you can toss the evidence and there is no consequence, then the statute is merely advisory. 

The hot issue when Mapp was decided was whether a Federal prosecutor, unable to use illegally seized evidence could simply cross the street and hand the file to a State prosecutor, who had a blank check to use it. For the majority in Mapp, such a scenario was unthinkable. How different, then, to imagine a prosecutor not being able to convict on an indictment against a suspect who is on probation but who can draft up a quick petition and use the exact same evidence in a ten-minute revocation hearing – even before the same court that granted the suppression motion in the new criminal case.

In Florida, the land that brought you depositions for criminal cases, the Supreme Court has held that the exclusionary rule applies to statutes that create rights for the accused where the legislature has chosen not to set forth another remedy. The 11th Circuit has held that, where Congress enumerates specific sanctions for violating a statutory right of the accused, those sanctions are exclusive of an exclusionary rule. The logical endpoint of such analysis is that, in the absence of such enumerated sanctions, it is proper for the exclusionary rule to apply. 

Stay tuned. Things are about to get interesting. 

Anchorman.jpgIn his blog yesterday, Kendall Gray referenced the Rules of the Georgia Court of Appeals, citing it as “a jurisdiction with rule-mandated ugliness.” Kendall’s blog post comes at a time when I am reading Typography for Lawyers by William Butterick. I’ve learned a great deal about fonts and layout and was all excited about using my new-found knowledge on a future appellate brief when I re-read the Georgia Court of Appeals Rules and found, well, “rule-mandated ugliness.” But it’s not quite as bad as it sounds. Here’e the language from Rule 1(c) of the Rules of the Georgia Court of Appeals:

All documents filed with the Court shall have no less than double spacing between the lines including quotations and footnotes. Letter spacing and type or font size shall be no smaller than ten characters per inch. Notwithstanding the 10 characters per inch requirement, the Court shall accept in lieu thereof Times New Roman Regular 14pt.

Also, there’s a little more good news. Now, to the issue of margin. According to Rule 24(c), there must be a “margin of not less than two inches at the top and a margin of at least one inch on the sides and bottom of each page.”

Matthew Butterick recommends two-inch margins, which you could do under the Rules of the Georgia Court of Appeals. He also recommends moving away from system fonts, which you can do as long as you meet the 10 characters per inch requirement. Of course, you still have “rule mandated ugliness” because you must double space. Butterick recommends spacing in the neighborhood of 1.2 to 1.3. inches. Which sounds odd if you’ve never written a brief like that. But it’s really not so odd. Are you reading a novel right now or a new non-fiction book? Take a look at it. I bet your margins are at least two inches, and I can pretty much guarantee that the lines aren’t double spaced. Why? Well, for one, because the publisher wanted to keep you reading. Two, it’s a book and not a term paper. In fact, pull random books off your shelf. See any Times Roman 14? See any double spacing?

Why, you might ask, would the rules mandate ugliness. First, I believe Kendall is correct. The rules were likely originally crafted in the typewriter era. However, I suspect that there’s a little more to the story. I think the rules were likely amended at the beginning of the personal computing era. I’d be willing to bet that the courts got worried that there would be an attempt to manipulate how many words could fit on a page with those new-fangled computers.

Of course, there was a better solution. The Court could have provided a word count limit instead of a page count limit. But that was a little too easy, I suppose.

And I wonder if any lawyer really gamed the system or if there was fear back in 1982 that somebody might potentially try to game the system. You know how appellate lawyers are. We’re a bunch of James Dean types and that’s been the case for a long long time. It ain’t ever gonna change. When I decided to become an appellate lawyer, it was hard to focus. Women with a penchant for the bad boy heard that there was an appeals lawyer in town.

Scott Greenfield’s review is what actually led me to buy the book. He wrote this about briefs with a pleasing layout:

No, they won’t make a loser appeal into a winner, but like wearing a decent suit to court, or polishing your shoes, it’s one less detriment and one more benefit. Butterick’s point, and mine, is that there’s no good reason not to do it as well as it can be done.

If good typography is like a good suit, then a brief typed in conformity with the Rules of the Georgia Court of Appeals is a powder blue polyester leisure suit, with bell-bottomed pants, huge lapels, and a wide flannel tie. It was a great suit for the day it was written and great for a 70s party now. I’m just not sure I’d wear it to court.

Now, over at the Supreme Court, the look is a little more modern. You might not look out of place on the show 21 Jump Street. Supreme Court Rule 18 reads:

 All filings shall be printed or typed with not less than double-spacing between the lines, except in block quotations or footnotes. Margins shall be no less than one inch at the top, bottom and sides. The type size shall not be smaller than 12-point courier font or 14-point Times New Roman.

The good news is that you can single-space block quotations and footnotes. The bad news is that they reference the courier font — literally the ugliest font ever made if you don’t count comic sans (which I don’t).

With all that said, you have some room to think about design and to make your brief stands out. Lawyers are a careful lot, particularly when sober. So, most will use the “example fonts” to play it safe. You may choose another that is the same size and be okay. Also, you can go for bigger margins to provide more white space.

And, if you think this is just kooky Mac user talk, check out the Rules of the United States Supreme Court (PDF), that hotbed of flashy design. In particular, check out Rule 33. Actually, check out the layout of the rules themselves. Mr. Butterick would approve. And there’s a word count limit, not a page limit. The things is, if your brief looked like the United State Supreme Court Rules, you would likely not be able to file it in the Georgia Court of Appeals. Though it was be the most readable brief in the stack.

If the United States Supreme Court Rules were a suit, it would look nice in court today.

But, in Georgia, it’s Ron Burgundy time. So, here’s hoping that the rules are modernized. Until then, stay classy Atlanta.

Justice David Nahmias and Judge-Elect Christopher McFadden have been elected respectively to the Supreme Court of Georgia and Georgia Court of Appeals. Both won by wide margins. Georgia votes made the right choice in both elections. Justice Nahmias is likely to continue to do excellent work on the Court. I look forward to his well-reasoned and finely crafted opinions. And I am eager to continue to be challenged by him at oral argument. Judge-elect McFadden is going to be a great addition to the Court of Appeals. He will be fair, and his opinions are going to be scholarly. Yesterday’s election was good for the Georgia judiciary and the people of Georgia. Our legal system is as good as the professionals who occupy the bench and those who argue from the bar. Yesterday was a great step for Georgia.

The voters who braved yesterday’s Georgia weather did the right thing. While it might be easy to be cynical that such a small percentage of eligible voters showed up to vote, it appears that they made an informed decision on both parts of their ballot.

I will look forward to Justice Nahmias’s continued work on the bench and the days ahead with Judge McFadden.