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When SunTrust Banks Inc. lost a case in North Carolina a few years back, the company’s GC didn’t return to Georgia entirely empty-handed. Raymond D. Fortin came back with the idea of establishing a business court program similar to what he saw in the Tar Heel state. “I was impressed with the way the case was handled, the sophistication of the judge and how the case proceeded,” Fortin said. Now, after discussions with the Georgia Supreme Court and the Administrative Office of the Courts, and a $30,000 study paid for with funds raised by the State Bar of Georgia, the idea of establishing a court dedicated to complex commercial litigation appears to be moving forward. The State Bar’s Board of Governors will meet early next month, and Fortin will present the business court program for the group’s consideration. If the board endorses the project, the plans for the business court will move to the Georgia Supreme Court for approval. According to Fortin, the initial idea would be for the Fulton County Superior Court to host a three-year pilot program. Parties involved in complex commercial litigation in metro Atlanta — including DeKalb, Fulton, Cobb and Gwinnett counties — would be able to bring their disputes to Fulton voluntarily and have them heard before a senior judge dedicated to the business court. Fortin said the idea is to have a few judges who are accustomed to complex business disputes manage the cases from beginning to end. Because these judges would be dedicated to the business court, they could commit more of their time to complex commercial litigation without the burden of a pending criminal or domestic relations calendar. “It will increase the overall efficiency of the court system by getting a specialized judge,” Fortin said. The precise definition of the types of cases to be heard is still somewhat fluid, but Fortin estimated that metro Atlanta counties could generate about 75 such cases each year. At the moment, he said, there is no threshold dollar amount for a case to be accepted, but Fortin expects the court will hear partnership dissolutions, fights over corporate control, technology and licensing issues, software license cases and basic contract disputes. The SunTrust GC noted that the court would not accept tort, consumer or personal injury cases. “It’s only business-to-business disputes,” he said. Fulton Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner has been working with Fortin to implement the program in Fulton. She said the idea has been a popular one thus far because it will help business litigants — who often have large cases involving inordinate amounts of discovery — get before a judge more quickly when an issue needs to be decided. That feature should help the case get resolved faster and with less cost, she added. “When you can get something resolved quickly without filing more and more motions and briefs, the interests of the litigants are served, generally speaking,” said Bonner, who will take senior status at the end of this year. THE BUSINESS COURT BOOM The popularity of business court programs has been rising steadily, said Mitchell L. Bach, a Philadelphia lawyer who is chairman of the American Bar Association’s subcommittee on business courts. Bach is the co-author of a study titled “A Brief History of the Creation and Jurisdiction of Business Courts in the Last Decade,” which is to be published next month in the ABA’s The Business Lawyer. “There’s been an explosion in this area,” Bach said. “There’s been more activity in the last year than in the last five years.” According to Bach’s study, business courts have been established in 28 jurisdictions: one in Chicago; one statewide program in Maryland; four in Massachusetts including one based in Boston; two in Nevada (one in Las Vegas, the other in Reno); six in New Jersey; eight in the state of New York, including one based in Manhattan; a statewide program in North Carolina; a statewide program in Oklahoma; one in Orlando for Florida’s Ninth Circuit Division Court; one in Philadelphia; and two in Rhode Island. Besides Georgia, Bach said, business court programs are under consideration in Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan and Ohio. “This is a very good way to handle commercial litigation,” he said. “It’s very efficient because of the specialization. There are efficiencies which allow the litigation to proceed much quicker. It reduces litigation costs, and in most places there has been a dramatic increase in the rate of disposition.” Bach said California has a complex litigation program, but it’s not one that’s exclusive to business cases. In addition, the Philadelphia lawyer said the Chancery Court in Delaware could be considered a de facto business court based on the sheer volume of complex commercial litigation that ends up there. All the judges are “extremely knowledgeable” in commercial matters, but it’s never been officially designated a business court. HANDLING COSTS In a June 2004 column in the Georgia Bar Journal’s special environmental law issue, State Bar President William D. Barwick wrote that the expense of the new business court would be “deferred in large part by increased filing fees, although staff and administrative costs will ultimately need to be approved by the Administrative Office of the Courts and subject to budgeting by the Legislature.” Fortin estimated the annual cost would be “a couple hundred thousand dollars a year,” an amount that would be used mostly to cover operational costs and salaries for the judges’ law clerks. The chief judge of the Fulton Superior Court bench, Doris L. “Dee” Downs, welcomed the idea of bringing a business court to Atlanta. “I believe the business leaders feel it would be a very good idea to get under way with the business court,” she said. “They help resolve large business disputes expeditiously.”

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