The Georgia Court of Appeals announced changes Thursday that the judges hope will streamline its decision-making process.
The biggest change eliminates a rule requiring that six additional judges join three-judge panels that have split 2-1 on a case. Because trickier cases tend to take longer to decide, the resulting nine-judge panels sometimes reviewed matters too close to the court’s constitutionally mandated deadline to rule on each case within two court terms, or about eight months.
Allowing 2-1 decisions to go forward “will be much more efficient,” said Laurie Webb Daniel, who chairs Holland & Knight’s national appellate practice.
Chief Judge Stephen Dillard said, “We’re still going to have some cases that go down to the wire,” but he sounded hopeful that the new rule will reduce the number of those kinds of matters.
Since joining the court in 2010, Dillard and other judges have been concerned that judges added to panels have little time to review cases late in a case’s second term. In 2013, he dissented from a decision by an expanded panel, arguing “the limited amount of time that many members of the Court had to consider the complex issues presented by this appeal” was a reason to send the case back to the trial judge for review.
An announcement by the court said the changes take effect Dec. 4.
The court also is adopting a mechanism so that three-judge panels wishing to overrule court precedent may issue the decision without requiring a hearing by the entire 15-judge court. If a panel votes 3-0 to overrule precedent, the other 12 judges would be polled on whether the full court should review the matter. If at least six of the 15 judges wish to review it, the entire court would have to issue a decision. If not, the three-judge panel could issue its decision overruling a precedent.
Dillard said the new rule will make it easier to eliminate uncontroversial precedents that have been implicitly overruled.
He cautioned that some of the new rules could be modified, such as the number of judges needed to force an en banc review. “We are in beta-testing,” he said.
A 2-1 decision seeking to overturn precedent couldn’t go forward without the full court’s blessing, Dillard said, because 2-1 decisions are “physical precedent” only.
Speaking of another change, Daniel said, “I’m really excited about electronic records being available.” She said that would help avoid situations caused by mismatched paper records when a judge can’t find a page cited by a lawyer.