Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Building. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

It’s been nearly three years since legislation was signed into law adding two new Georgia Supreme Court justices and shifting a sizable portion of the court’s caseload to the Court of Appeals, which was also bolstered with three new judges.

But a funny thing happened afterward. While there was a bit of reduction in the number of opinions the Supreme Court issued, its caseload actually went up. And the Court of Appeals, which was expanded in part to handle the burden of divorce, alimony, property title, wills, equity and certain extraordinary remedy cases that were shifted from the high court, saw a slight dip.

In fact, the number of direct appeals the lower appellate court handled last year was down by exactly one from 2017.

Georgia Court of Appeals: Total Filings by Year:

  • 2015: 3,235
  • 2016: 3,287
  • 2017: 3,093
  • 2018: 3,115

In comments to the Daily Report, Georgia Supreme Court public information officer Jane Hansen and Court of Appeals Chief Judge Stephen Dillard said the numbers don’t tell the complete story. Several factors weigh into the equation, including the types of cases counted, the availability of court resources, and statutory time considerations that mandate how quickly appeals must be decided.

“On a national basis, the Georgia Supreme Court is among the most productive state supreme courts,” Hansen said.

“We not only have the most oral arguments, but our court hears more arguments on more days than any other court of last appeal, except the New York Court of Appeals.”

Dillard said the Court of Appeals’ annual caseload has “remained steady over the past few years, but the nature of our caseload has changed significantly. As a result of the recent jurisdictional shift, the Court of Appeals is now handling several new categories of cases, and our judges and staff attorneys have spent a considerable amount of time immersing ourselves in these areas of the law.”

According to figures Hansen provided, the justices heard oral arguments in 151 cases in 2017. They listened to 109 arguments in 2018.

Georgia Court of Appeals: Direct Appeals by Year:

  • 2015: 2,409
  • 2016: 2,477
  • 2017: 2,188
  • 2018: 2,187

The number of direct appeals to the court—those involving murder cases or constitutional issues—dropped from 539 in 2017 to 426 last year.

But petitions for certiorari increased from 466 in 2017 to 523 in 2018. Hansen said the 2016 legislation shifted roughly 25 percent of the cases under the justices jurisdiction to the Court of Appeals.

Regarding the high court’s seemingly counterintuitive figures, Hansen said there may be a number of explanations.

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court or most state supreme courts, she said, “we don’t have any control over direct appeals in murder cases, and they’re our biggest block of cases.”

“The only control we have is over cert  cases that come in by petition from appellants who lose at the Court of Appeals,” she said.

Georgia Supreme Court: By the Numbers

2018

  • Petitions for certiorari: 523
  • Direct appeals: 426
  • Oral arguments: 109
  • Opinions: 327

2017

  • Petitions for certiorari: 466
  • Direct appeals: 539
  • Oral arguments: 151
  • Opinions: 381

She also noted that both the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals are bound by the Georgia Constitution’s “two-term rule,” meaning they must dispose of any case within the term it was docketed or the next one. Both courts divide each year into three terms of about three and half months each.

Each case the Supreme Court considers is decided by the entire court, Hansen said, while the 15-judge Court of Appeals is divided into five three-judge panels.

The Georgia Court of Appeals caseload statistics said it handled 2,187 direct appeals in 2018, down exactly one from 2017. Both of those years continued a downward trend over the past six years, from 2,569 cases in 2013.

Dillard said he doesn’t expect the recent, relatively flat caseload numbers to stay the same in coming years.

“While our annual caseload has stayed at about the same level—approximately 3,100 cases—since the jurisdictional shift, we are starting to see an increase in cases since October of last year, as well as a significant increase in the number of motions being filed in relation to those appeals,” he said.

“This may be due, in part, to the fact that the new categories of cases from the jurisdictional shift are just now starting to arrive at the court.”

The Appellate Jurisdiction Reform Act of 2016 actually went into effect in January 2017, he said, “so only cases with notices of appeal filed after that date fall within the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals; and it can take anywhere from a few months to more than a year for cases to make their way to our Court (depending on the amount of time it takes for the trial court clerk to prepare the appellate record).”

Dillard said that, even with the addition of three judges, “our court continues to be one of the busiest state intermediate appellate courts in the country.

“This is why our judges recently implemented a new operational model,” he said, eliminating the nine-judge “back-up panels” to reconsider 2-to-1 decisions.

The court also “streamlined our processes for considering cases en banc and overruling prior precedents,” Dillard said.

Notwithstanding those changes, however, “the past few years have been especially challenging for our central staff attorneys, who perform a jurisdictional review for all of the court’s cases, examine all discretionary and interlocutory applications and often assist the judges with per curiam opinions,” Dillard said.

“We have asked the General Assembly to approve two additional central staff attorneys for the court’s 2020 budget, and it is our hope that help will soon be on the way,” he said.