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By Chris Marr
March 23 — The Georgia legislature approved a bill to expand the state's supreme court by two justices and revise the court's jurisdiction, in a move that could result in Gov. Nathan Deal (R) appointing a majority of the court's justices during his tenure.
The 2016 Appellate Jurisdiction Reform Act, HB 927, won final approval from the state senate on March 22 and goes next to Deal, who recommended the overhaul.
Deal's office declined to comment beyond saying he will review the bill.
The bill passed both chambers on mostly party-line votes, with some Democratic lawmakers expressing opposition to letting Deal appoint more justices to the Supreme Court. The bill provides for the governor to appoint the two new justices in 2016 to begin their terms Jan. 1, 2017, expanding the court to a total of nine justices.
Andy Clark, an appellate attorney in Atlanta who argues cases before both the state court of appeals and supreme court, said he's not sure of the motivation for adding new justices and suggested the court of appeals will have the heavier case load going forward.
“I don't see a reason why it would be bad to go from seven justices to nine. But if you're going to spend the money to add judges, it probably would make more sense to add more to the Court of Appeals,” Clark told Bloomberg BNA. “That's where the bigger workload problem is going to be.”
Not many states have nine justices on the supreme court, he said, but it's common for states to have more judges in their intermediate appellate courts than the 15 at Georgia's court of appeals. The appeals court had 12 judges before adding three under legislation enacted in 2015.
“There's some thought that maybe this is court packing by the governor. I don't know that there's any issue where the governor really needs to pack the court,” Clark said.
“On the other hand, it increases Governor Deal's influence on the court,” he said.
In addition to the new justices, Deal could get the chance to replace two sitting justices who are due to reach the statutory retirement age of 75 in 2018–Chief Justice Hugh P. Thompson and Presiding Justice P. Harris Hines. Add to that list Deal's 2012 appointment of Justice Keith R. Blackwell, and Deal could end up appointing five of the court's nine justices before leaving office in 2019.
In addition to expanding the supreme court, the legislation proposes to revise the jurisdiction of the court so the state court of appeals will handle many of the cases that historically have gone to the supreme court for their appeal. These include divorce cases and wills.
“They're routine. They could be handled by the Georgia Court of Appeals with a three-judge panel just fine,” said Clark, noting the inefficiency of sending them to the state supreme court, which hears all cases en banc.
Cases involving title to land, as well as equity cases and cases involving extraordinary remedies with the exception of murder cases, would also be placed under the jurisdiction of the court of appeals.
The jurisdictional changes in the bill match those proposed in a January report from the governor's Appellate Jurisdiction Review Commission.
The report pointed out that the historical inefficiencies of the state's appellate system haven't been addressed sooner because the court of appeals would need additional judges to handle the workload. The state finally did add three new judges to the court via legislation enacted in 2015.
The recommendations, the commission wrote, “would create an appellate system that is more logically and intentionally organized rather than the current system, which is largely an accident of historical development.”
The commission didn't specifically recommend adding two new justices to the state supreme court, although it noted the importance of the court's work and more generally suggested the state pursue any “additional measures consistent with the Constitution that would enhance the ability of the Supreme Court to fulfill its special constitutional role.”
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