Beginning on January 1, 2016, Georgias appellate courts will be entering a significant transition phase. Often described as one of the busiest intermediate appellate courts in the nation, statistics from 2014 show that the Court disposed of over 2,400 direct appeals in that year, representing over 200 cases per judge, and that does not include approximately 800 additional applications and motions that the Court addresses on a yearly basis. Georgias appellate courts are also both governed by what is known as the two term rule set forth in Article VI, Section IX, Paragraph II of the Georgia Constitution, which provides that [t]he Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals shall dispose of every case at the term for which it is entered on the courts docket for hearing or at the next term. While this has the benefit of ensuring that cases move expeditiously through the appeal process, it necessarily limits the ability of those courts to manage their own caseload. Even if the appellate courts did have more flexibility in the time frame for rendering decisions, however, in order to keep pace in the long run with a growing state population, and to continue to produce quality decisions, the balance between demand for the courts resources and their capacity must be adjusted.
Earlier this year, the Georgia legislature agreed, and amended O.C.G.A. 15-3-1, which provides for the composition of the Court of Appeals, to create 3 new judgeships whose terms are set to begin in 2016, representing a 25% expansion of the Court from its current size of 12, to now 15 judges. This is the first expansion of this Court since 1999. Each of the 3 new judges will be appointed by the Governor for an initial three year term, and after that they will each stand for election to a regular six year term in the same manner as other judges of the Court of Appeals. There are presently 11 individuals on the Governors short list for these new judicial posts, having been narrowed down from 110 nominees that were under consideration just a couple weeks ago.
At the same time that this expansion is underway, a separate process of reallocating cases between the states two appellate courts has also begun. The Governor has appointed an Appellate Jurisdiction Review Commission to study potential changes to the respective jurisdiction of each appellate court, and that commission is due to submit its report by the middle of December. The current expansion of the Court of Appeals is seen as an opportunity to re examine the current jurisdictional boundaries of our appellate courts and make assessments about modernizing those courts for efficiencies and to achieve best practices in the administration of justice. Executive Order, Nathan Deal, Governor of Georgia, October 1, 2015.
One of the most likely outcomes of this analysis could very well be a recommendation to utilize the capacity of the 3 new appellate judges to transfer jurisdiction of certain types of cases from the Supreme Court to the Court of Appeals. The current jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, in addition to its ability to review by certiorari certain decisions of the Court of Appeals, involves a number of areas where appeals come directly from the trial courts. Some of these subject matter areas, such as cases involving treaties, elections, or constitutional questions, could only be removed from the Supreme Court by constitutional amendment. However, in a number of other areas, such as equity cases, habeas corpus cases, and divorce and alimony cases, which are set forth in Article VI, Section VI, Paragraph III of the Georgia Constitution, the Supreme Court only has jurisdiction [u]nless otherwise provided by law. Thus, there is significant latitude to readjust the distribution of jurisdiction between the appellate courts, although it would undoubtedly require an act of the legislature to do so.
Rumors are circulating that in the coming year the Governor may also advocate an expansion of the Supreme Court from 7 to 9 justices, but nothing official has been announced in this regard, and it is likely that no further steps will be taken pending the report of the Appellate Jurisdiction Review Commission. Certainly, if jurisdiction over a significant number of cases is indeed transferred to the Court of Appeals, an additional expansion of the Supreme Court may prove unnecessary.
In any event, for most litigants, who only get one bite at the apple on appeal, increasing the capacity of the Court of Appeals, and thereby increasing the time and resources available to decide each case, is a positive development. As the next step, a limited reallocation of jurisdiction that would help the Supreme Court more effectively focus its attention on those cases of gravity or great public importance for which it is most needed, and that would not fully absorb the Court of Appeals new capacity, is certainly worthy of serious consideration.