Flickr CC Qalander
Flickr CC Qalander

Jim Galloway, in the Atlanta Journal’s Political Insider Blog, reports that the Governor is formulating a push in next year’s session of the legislature to increase Georgia’s seven-member Supreme Court by two justices.

Mr. Galloway opines that the governor’s move could expand his influence beyond his eight year tenure and compares a potential Franklin Roosevelt’s push, during the depression, to “pack” the court with like-minded Supreme Court justices. Such is an interesting take on the Gov.’s move. However, I don’t know that the comparison is necessarily apt. A presidential appointment certainly has the potential to expand a president’s influence beyond his own term. After all, United States Supreme Court justices have lifetime appointments. Also, the United States Supreme Court hears issues, in the aggregate, that are likely to shape the direction of public policy. While there are certain cases like that before the Georgia Supreme Court, that court also takes on its fair share of routine criminal and civil matters. Again, it’s an interesting theory. But I have never thought of George’s appellate courts as an extension of the governors who appointed the justices that sit on it. Perhaps I haven’t thought of it enough.

While the governor may have some hand in creating these new judgeships, his appointment would not extend for life. Georgia Supreme Court justices seek reelection at the end of their term. Though incumbency has its benefits, particularly in judicial elections. Interestingly, the Court of Appeals was expanded by three judges in the most recent legislative term. From an initial field of nominees of approximately 200, approximately 100 applicants remain.

Mr. Galloway reports that two “inducements” are on the table to increase the number of Supreme Court justices by two. There is a promise to build a new judicial building as well as talk of reducing the jurisdiction of the state Supreme Court. That jurisdiction is already significantly narrow. And it seems strange that the Supreme Court would undergo a historic expansion as part of a package deal to reduce the court workload. Also, it is difficult to imagine that either court would like such a proposal. For the Supreme Court, loss of jurisdiciton is a loss of power.

For the Court of Appeals, increased jurisdiction brings with it an increased caseload. It also seems odd that there would be a push to potentially increase the workload of the Court of Appeals. The Georgia Court of Appeals is known as one of the busiest if not the busiest intermediate appellate courts in the nation. The Georgia Court of Appeals hears on average about 3200 cases per year over the last five years. That workload means that each judge has a caseload of approximately 280. The addition of three Court of Appeals judges will significantly decrease the workload of each judge and probably increase the quality of opinions being authored as judges will have more time to spend on each case. By contrast, the seven justices on the Supreme Court here fewer direct appeals and have a good bit of discretion over their caseload where petitions come before them. I’m certainly not in the loop for any of this, but I wonder what category of cases would be taken away from the Supreme Court.

I will be interested to see how this all falls out and what the debate is about these two new additions. From a lawyer’s perspective, a move to increase the resources of either court is welcome. A better staffed court is can only help the litigants before it.

Governor Deal has signed into law the aptly-named “guns everywhere law” that increases the number of places in the State that guns will be allowed. Those places include churches (though the church must “opt in,” which may make for an exciting deacon/vestry meeting at a church near you), bars, schools, and even certain places within airports. CNN reports:

The bill, which easily navigated the state Legislature – by a 112-58 vote in the House and a 37-18 tally in the Senate – also earned the support of Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, the grandson of ex-President Jimmy Carter and a 2014 gubernatorial candidate.

Even in old western movies, patrons were required to check their guns when entering saloons. Democratic candidate Jason Carter, grandson of former president Jimmy Carter, voted for this law. Though he claims that he helped to make it better than it was.

Continue Reading Unintended Consequences of Georgia’s New “Guns Everywhere” Law

Greg Bluestein, with the Associated Press, reports that the Judiciary could see more funding in 2012. The report echoes some of the discussion at the Appellate Practice Section luncheon several days ago. Mr. Bluestein reports that “[t]he judicial branch’s budget situation was so dire in 2009 that Georgia’s top judges considered whether to take emergency legal action to stop the state from cutting their funding.”

Judge John Pridgen, the chair of the Council of Superior Court Judges is “very much encouraged” by the support of a governor, who is a lawyer and who has a son who is a Georgia Superior Court Judge.

The governor’s budget request includes a “$10 million grant to fund a system of accountability courts for alternative treatment of some low-level offenders.” There are several other budget increases reportedly in the works

  • funding increases to allow for the hiring of more clerks, additional attorneys, and new equipment to reverse a backlog in court cases
  • $3 million for district attorneys
  • An infusion of cash for GPDSC (though GPDSC seems perfectly willing to deliver substandard representation, according to recent arguments at the Supreme Court)
  • A grant of $145,000 to the Supreme Court to fund a pay increase for staff attorneys and to create a dedicated clerk for death penalty cases
  • A $106,000 proposal to hire another investigator for the Judicial Qualifications Commission. This is good news for lawyers everywhere. Trial judges have been exceptionally polite lately since the JQC has become more active in the last few years
  • The Georgia Resource Center, which handles death penalty cases on appeal and in the post-conviction setting, woudl get enough funding to stay open in the wake of recent cuts that would have killed the organization

Of course, time and the legislative process will tell whether all of this funding comes through. But it is quite nice to have a governor in office who recognizes that there is a third branch of government.

The Appellate Practice Section of the State Bar of Georgia convened as part of the Georgia Bar’s mid-year meeting. In spite of the fact that many participants came over from the swearing-in of Judge Boggs to the Court of Appeals, the luncheon was lively and well-attended. Originally intended to be a candidates’s forum for candidates to an open spot on the Supreme Court of Georgia, events changed the format. However several judges on the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court have seats up for re-election this year. And the meeting became an opportunity for brief comments from judges and justices. Without covering each mini-speech, I’ll highlight a few judicial comments about the nature of judicial elections and about what life is like for the judiciary under the leadership of a new governor.

It should come as no great surprise that the former governor did not have a particularly bright spot in his heart for the judiciary or even for lawyers. From the comments I heard, things appear to be better now.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein noted that the new administration is “kindler and gentler,” in terms of budgetary support and basic understanding of what judges and lawyers do. Governor Deal is requesting $10 million for “accountability courts.” Accountability courts are focused on particular needs of a category of defendant. Accountability courts include drug courts, DUI Courts, mental health courts, and veterans courts. The Chief Justice noted that the governor’s son runs an accountability court and that the governor himself was once a juvenile court judge. She and former chief judge Yvette Miller, spoke of how difficult it was for the two appellate courts to make ends meet in the darkest days of the Perdue administration. Both were complimentary of the new governor, and the dark clouds of former days appear to have moved away.

Equally interesting was the general tone about the nature of judicial elections in Georgia. Chief Justice Hunstein, who faced down a well-funded challenge by Mike Wiggins in 2006 (PDF), noted optimistically that a judge’s job at election time is simply to “get the message out, and you can trust Georgia voters.” She looked back on her 2006 election as a time of fear that had she lost then every judge would be intimidated by special interest groups. And she hoped that the 2006 election proved that special interests can’t defeat a sitting judge. For candidates this year, she advised lawyers to inform the choices of non-lawyers. After all, if the judiciary is doing its job, judges should not be in the headlines. Hence, it should not be unusual for the general public to be unfamiliar with the judges.

To date, no challengers have announced an intent to run against any of the Court of Appeals judges or Supreme Court Justices who are up for election. The year ahead looks to be a time of stability for the appellate courts with apparently no contested elections and with a supportive governor in office.