The Court of Appeals of Georgia, established in 1906, is a court of statewide jurisdiction whose decisions are binding upon all Georgia trial courts in the absence of a conflicting decision by the Supreme Court of Georgia.
In the words of the eminent legal historian Warren Grice (a justice on the Supreme Court of Georgia from 1937 to 1945), “The Court of Appeals of Georgia was established because it was an absolute necessity.” In the 1890s the Supreme Court of Georgia struggled under the weight of an enormous caseload, and was often in danger of falling behind in its work. During the early 1900s the Georgia Bar Association began floating proposals to relieve the state’s highest court.
One of these proposed reforms was the creation of an intermediate appellate court that would handle appeals in cases of insufficient importance to warrant review by the Supreme Court of Georgia. This idea soon acquired the most support among reformers. As a result, in July 1906 the General Assembly approved a proposed state constitutional amendment for creating, and establishing the jurisdiction of, a Court of Appeals of Georgia, which would consist of three judges. The state legislature approved the proposed amendment on July 31, 1906, and it was ratified by voters at the general election on October 3, 1906. A month later, on November 6, the first judges of the newly created Court of Appeals of Georgia were chosen in another statewide election.
The three judges elected, all among the most distinguished jurists in Georgia history, were Benjamin Hill (son of U.S. senator Benjamin Hill), Richard B. Russell Sr., and Arthur G. Powell. Hill, the first chief judge of the Court of Appeals of Georgia, served on the court for six years, resigned to become a superior court judge for five years, and was subsequently elected once more to the Court of Appeals, thus becoming the only person ever to serve nonconsecutive terms on that court. Hill’s opinion for the Court of Appeals in Underwood v. State (1913), in which a liquor prohibition act conviction was reversed because police had conducted an illegal search and seizure, is one of the strongest defenses for the constitutional rights of individuals ever written by an American judge.
Until 2012, when George H. Carley became the chief justice of the Georgia supreme court, Russell was the only person to have served as both the chief judge of the Court of Appeals of Georgia (1913-16) and the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia (1923-38). As a judge Russell displayed, in the words of a memorial issued by the Supreme Court of Georgia, an “ideology of mercy, and of sympathy for the poor, the helpless, the unprotected, and the underprivileged.”
Powell, who was thirty-three years of age when elected, was the youngest judge ever to serve on the Court of Appeals. A judge of unusual ability, Powell consistently decided cases without regard for legal technicalities, and during his five years on the court he worked with remarkable speed, authoring more than 1,000 judicial opinions.
The three judges took the oath of office on January 1, 1907, and the first open session of the Court of Appeals of Georgia took place on January 7. The court’s first case was orally argued on January 8 and decided only three days later, on January 11.
In 1916 the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals was expanded, and the number of judges on the court increased to six. The number of judges was further increased to seven in 1960, nine in 1961, ten in 1996, twelve in 1999, and fifteen in 2016.
Constitutional and Statutory Provisions
The Court of Appeals of Georgia exists under, and its basic authority is prescribed by, two sections of Article VI (the judicial article) of the Georgia Constitution of 1983.
Under Article VI, Section V, the Court of Appeals shall consist of not less than nine judges, who shall elect from among themselves a chief judge. The judges may sit in panels of three, and the court shall exercise appellate jurisdiction in all cases not reserved to the Supreme Court of Georgia or conferred on other courts by law. Furthermore, the decisions of the Court of Appeals, insofar as they are not in conflict with those of the Supreme Court, are binding on all Georgia courts except the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals may certify a question to the Supreme Court for instruction; moreover, in the event of an equal division among the judges of the Court of Appeals, the case shall be immediately transmitted to the Supreme Court.
Under the provisions of Article VI, Section VI, the decisions of the Supreme Court of Georgia are binding precedents on all Georgia courts (including the Court of Appeals). Also under these provisions, the Georgia Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction over cases certified to it by the Court of Appeals, and in addition the Georgia Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction to review decisions of the Court of Appeals in cases that are of gravity or great public importance.
Under the Georgia Code of 1981, the Court of Appeals consists of fifteen judges who are elected by the people to serve six-year terms. The judges sit in three-judge panels, and each panel hears and determines, independently of the other panels, the cases assigned to it. Panel decisions must be unanimous. If one of the panel judges dissents from a proposed decision by the panel, the case shall be decided by a majority vote of seven of the judges of the Court of Appeals. If two judges of a panel think that a question before the panel should be presented to all the judges of the Court of Appeals, and if a majority of the judges of the Court of Appeals agree, the question is decided by a majority vote of the judges of the entire court.
Practice and Procedures
Nearly all the appeals heard by the Court of Appeals involve review of final judgments rendered by either the superior courts (trial courts of general jurisdiction with authority to try felonies and misdemeanors and most civil actions) or the state courts (trial courts of limited jurisdiction, established in many but not all the counties, with authority to try misdemeanors and certain civil actions but not felonies).
In civil cases the Court of Appeals hears almost all the appeals that are taken from the superior courts and the state courts, including (since 2017) all cases involving title to land, wills, and divorce and alimony. Except in cases where a sentence of death has been or could be imposed, or cases concerning the execution of a sentence of death, the Court of Appeals hears all appeals in equity cases and in cases involving extraordinary remedies. The Supreme Court of Georgia, and not the Court of Appeals, hears all appeals in cases of election contest and in habeas corpus cases.
In criminal cases the Supreme Court of Georgia hears all appeals from superior courts in cases in which the death penalty was imposed or could be imposed; the Court of Appeals hears all appeals in cases involving the crimes of armed robbery, rape, and kidnapping if the death penalty has not been imposed. When the Court of Appeals hears appeals from the superior courts in criminal cases, therefore, nearly all these cases involve noncapital felonies or misdemeanors. All the criminal appeals to the Court of Appeals from the state courts, on the other hand, involve misdemeanors.
The Supreme Court of Georgia, and not the Court of Appeals, hears all appeals in cases involving the construction of either the U.S. Constitution or the Georgia Constitution, and in cases in which the constitutionality of a law or ordinance is drawn into question.
Most appeals in civil and criminal cases to the Court of Appeals from the superior courts or the state courts are appeals of right, meaning appeals in which the appealing party has a right to take the appeal. However, some of these appeals are discretionary appeals, which take place only if the Court of Appeals in its discretion first grants permission to appeal. These discretionary appeals include appeals in certain domestic relations cases; appeals in actions for damages where the judgment is for $10,000 or less; appeals from orders revoking probation; appeals in civil cases instituted by prisoners; and appeals of interlocutory orders, which are orders that, because they are preliminary rather than final, do not constitute the final resolution of a case.
Although the Court of Appeals is an intermediate appellate court, its decisions almost always constitute the final disposition of a case. Less than 5 percent of the decisions of the Court of Appeals are set aside by the Supreme Court of Georgia.
The Rules of the Court of Appeals of Georgia, adopted by the court itself, prescribe the proper procedures to be followed by attorneys, parties, and court officials in cases filed in the court.
Until 1956 the offices and courtroom of the Court of Appeals of Georgia were located on the third floor of the state capitol in Atlanta. The court and its judges’ chambers were then headquartered in the nearby State Judicial Building until 2019. Today, they reside in the Nathan Deal Judicial Center, where the courtroom is located on the second floor. In that courtroom, prominently displayed behind the judges’ bench, is the court’s motto: “Upon the integrity, wisdom and independence of the judiciary depend the sacred rights of free men and women.”