For several decades after the American Revolution (1775-83), Georgia was the only state that did not have a supreme court to review the decisions made by the trial courts. Once established, the Georgia Supreme Court was unusual in that it was required to hear all cases and resolve them within a given time. In other states the appellate courts, like the U.S. Supreme Court, have some leeway in deciding what cases they will hear.
The Supreme Court of Georgia was authorized by a constitutional amendment in 1835, and a decade later it was established by the General Assembly amid great political controversy. Many felt that such a court was unnecessary and too expensive. One superior court judge is alleged to have said that the only thing such a court would do is reverse his decisions.
The original court consisted of three justices; the first three appointees were all outstanding jurists. Joseph Henry Lumpkin, a member of a large and distinguished family of Athens and Lexington, was the presiding justice. The other two justices were Hiram Warner, a native of Massachusetts, and Eugenius A. Nisbet of Macon. All three had served in the Georgia General Assembly.
After the establishment of the supreme court, the existing superior court circuits were grouped into five districts. In four of the districts the court met for one term in each of two designated cities. The fifth district contained the state capital (then Milledgeville), which hosted both terms of court. This system continued until 1865, when the state constitution stipulated that all the sessions were to be moved to “the Seat of Government,” which, since 1868, has been Atlanta, the state capital. Occasionally, the court will hold a session outside Atlanta on special commemorative occasions.
In 1896 an amendment to the Constitution of Georgia increased the size of the court from three to six justices and authorized it to sit in two divisions to handle the increasing caseload. This experiment did not prove successful. In 1945 the number of members was raised to seven. The Constitution of 1983 authorized the General Assembly to increase the number to nine, which it did in 2017.
The Supreme Court of Georgia is mandated to hear certain types of cases and decide every issue raised in the briefs. No new matter is introduced on appeal; all cases have previously been heard in a lower court. The court must review all cases involving the death penalty or questions certified to it by either the Court of Appeals of Georgia or the federal courts (which may ask for clarification on some point of Georgia law). The types of cases that must go to the supreme court are defined by the state constitution and statute. The court is required to render a decision within two terms after hearing or receiving the case on its docket. The court considers approximately 2,000 cases per year.
An appeal differs from a trial, in which witnesses are called to give testimony and a jury is instructed by the trial judge to sort out what really happened and to apply the stated legal principles to the facts before them. Throughout the trial, the judge and lawyers operate within a legal framework governing procedure and evidence. After the trial has ended, if the lawyers feel that the judge has made a mistake in his or her application of these legal principles, they may ask the opinion of the appellate court. At this stage, the process becomes an argument about the application of legal doctrines to the set of facts and procedures used in the trial.
Procedure before the reviewing court is based on documents called briefs, which contain the controlling facts and evidence in the case and the reasons why, in the lawyer’s view, the trial court made a reversible error. Normally, counsel for both parties will appear before the supreme court to argue the merits of the case. If no oral argument is presented, the court will decide the cases based upon the contents of the briefs. Before any argument the justices study the briefs in preparation to ask counsel questions to clarify points made in the argument. Counsel (only lawyers can appear before the supreme court) is allowed to present an argument personally before the full court of nine judges, and each oral argument is held to a specific time limit. During this process, the justices will frequently ask questions of the counsel.
The justices hold a conference to consider the arguments made and to reach a decision in each of the cases on their docket. At this point, one of the justices, in rotation, is assigned to write an opinion stating the court’s reasoning in reaching its conclusion. This draft opinion is circulated to all members of the court and must be adopted as an accurate statement of the reasoning of the majority of the court before it is published. The comments of the other judges may cause a revision of the opinion before it becomes the court’s official decision.
Copies of the opinion are immediately sent to the counsel of record in the case and to an officer known as the reporter, who oversees the publication of all the opinions in a series of volumes entitled Georgia Reports. All trial courts in the state are expected to apply the law as expounded in these opinions.