Georgia’s “two-headed” appellate court system needs to be overhauled to create a less confusing set of courts with more clearly defined roles, a state Supreme Court justice told members of the Augusta Bar Association on Thursday evening.
“I think it is time to take a look at the appellate system,” said Justice David E. Nahmias, addressing fellow attorneys at the Augusta Country Club. “I’m trying to start this conversation now because it takes a long time get these types of changes accomplished.”
Nahmias, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2009 by Gov. Sonny Perdue and won a statewide election in 2010, gave a brief history lesson on the origins of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, which he explained came into existence through piecemeal efforts of state legislators reacting to needs as they arose. He said it really doesn’t compare with federal judiciary system, which may seem “divinely inspired” as it is set down in the U.S. Constitution.
“When you look at the system in Georgia, it was not divinely inspired, but really cobbled together over the years,” he said, pointing out that the state didn’t even have a supreme court to hear appeals for its first 70 years.
Nahmias has plenty of experience with the federal system. After graduating from Harvard University in 1991, he worked as a clerk for Judge Laurence H. Silberman of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Before he was appointed to the Georgia high court, Nahmias served as the U.S. attorney in Atlanta for more than four years.
Nahmias said Georgia’s appellate courts are probably the busiest in the nation when you look at the number of cases per judge. The Court of Appeals has 12 judges. Nahmias is one of seven Supreme Court justices, who hand down about 350 decisions each year.
“The Court of Appeals is even busier,” he said, explaining that the caseload has swelled in the past 20 years with Georgia’s population boom.
Besides cases that are handled by relatively few judges, Nahmias said the types of cases that state law dictates must be handled by each court make little sense, such as the number of property disputes and divorces that must be appealed directly to the Supreme Court. He said fewer than half the cases his court hears would be heard in other states’ supreme courts.
“It’s amazing the system works as well as it does,” he said. “It’s just a strange one.”
Nahmias said he believes the state constitution has given the Legislature the latitude to make the kinds of changes needed, but it won’t be a quick fix.
Reducing the number of cases the Supreme Court hears would mean that more judges would be needed on the Court of Appeals. He encouraged the members of the bar to consider the issue and come up with their own recommendations.
“It’s something that is going to need a lot of input to make it happen,” he said.