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The Georgia Supreme Court has cleared the way for the Fulton County Superior Court to establish a division devoted solely to business disputes in which more than $1 million is at stake. The high court’s action makes real a dream of Raymond D. Fortin, general counsel to SunTrust Banks, who decided that Georgia needed a designated business court after returning from a trip to North Carolina a few years ago and seeing that state’s operation in action. “I was just really impressed with the business court’s responsiveness and expertise,” said Fortin. “It seemed to me that Georgia, as a commercial center, should have something like that: a court dedicated solely to business disputes. “This has been one of my favorite projects,” added Fortin, who said he hopes the court will open for business Sept. 1. The Supreme Court placed its imprimatur on the proposed court in an order dated June 3 but released on Tuesday. It came after the State Bar of Georgia spent $30,000 to study Fortin’s proposal, and the General Assembly this year — despite trimming judicial budget requests — approved $100,000 for a three-year project. “With the court’s order and the money form the Legislature, we’re almost up and running,” said Fortin. He said three senior judges from the Fulton bench will be appointed to oversee issues including contract disputes, securities litigation, corporate suits and business torts, among others. He already has been in discussions with Fulton Superior Court officials, including Senior Judge Alice D. Bonner and Judge Cynthia D. Wright, concerning the possible structure of the court. Fulton Chief Judge Doris L. Downs, who was unavailable for comment on the high court’s order, told the Daily Report earlier that such courts “help resolve large business disputes expeditiously.” Although parties to cases before the court must agree to its oversight, said Fortin, he hopes that his corporate colleagues will see the value of a dedicated business venue. “Now the crucial part is whether the commercial bar will support it, because it is completely voluntary right now,” he said. Fortin conceded that corporate litigators may be leery of the new project, but says his one-on-one conversations so far have been encouraging. “Everyone I’ve talked with, certainly the corporate and in-house lawyers, have been very supportive. Of course it may be that, in some disputes, one party may say, ‘No, I don’t want to put it before them,’ but for responsible attorneys, I think they’ll see the value.” 100 CASES PER YEAR So just how much business will a business court have? “In our study, we determined that about 100 cases [per year] would be appropriate,” replied Fortin. “It’s not like there’s going to be a judge sitting over in the courthouse with nothing to do. Fulton County will support three senior judges to hear cases as they come before the court.” Although the court is geared to handle cases from metro Atlanta, including Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb counties, Fortin said that cases from elsewhere in the metro area or beyond may be allowed access. “There is a mechanism, on a voluntary basis, for litigants to get themselves into this court from other counties,” he said. “It’s obviously of interest mostly to metro Atlanta but, depending on how successful this pilot [project] is, we may see some set up in central or south Georgia.” A REGULAR COURT Fortin noted that, voluntary participation notwithstanding, the business court is a fully empowered judicial forum. “This is a regular court that issues binding superior court decisions,” he noted, “which I think is one of its main advantages. … A judicial proceeding can give you precedent for making future business decisions, unlike arbitration.” Although the business court has only just been approved, the amount of background work undertaken by Fulton County and the Administrative Office of the Courts should, said Fortin, allow for a relatively speedy setup. “I’m hoping for Sept. 1,” he said. “That’ll give us time to get set up over the summer, then get up and going. The only thing after that is to make sure corporate and commercial lawyers know it’s available.” In addition to North Carolina’s business court, at least 27 other jurisdictions in 10 states have similar courts, according to Mitchell L. Bach, a Philadelphia lawyer who chairs the American Bar Association’s subcommittee on business courts.

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