Based in Atlanta, the Georgia Supreme Court functions as the State’s highest court. Currently, the Georgia Supreme Court is comprised of nine members, called Justices. The Georgia Supreme Court’s Justices elect from among themselves a Chief Justice, who serves as chief presiding and administrative officer of the Court. A quorum of the Justices is necessary to hear and decide cases.
The Georgia Supreme Court exercises purely appellate jurisdiction. This means that a lower trial court must initially render a some form of judgment prior to triggering the Supreme Court’s exercise of jurisdiction. The exact parameters of the Georgia Supreme Court’s jurisdiction are delineated in the Georgia State Constitution and the Official Code of Georgia. Recently, in an effort to achieve modernization and improve efficiency, the Georgia General Assembly drastically circumscribed the scope of the Georgia Supreme Court’s jurisdiction.
Cases come to the Georgia Supreme Court by one of the following means: 1) a direct, discretionary, or interlocutory appeal from a lower Georgia trial court; 2) a grant of certiorari following a Georgia Court of Appeals decision; 3) a certified question from the Georgia Court of Appeals; and 4) a certified question from an appellate court in another State, or from any federal district or appellate court. These exercises of appellate jurisdiction are discussed below in more detail.
Direct, Discretionary, or Interlocutory Appeals from Georgia Trial Courts. Generally, after a trial court enters an order, a party who wishes to challenge that order typically will file an appeal in an intermediate appellate court (e.g., the Georgia Court of Appeals). However, in some limited cases, a party can appeal an trial court order straight to the Georgia Supreme Court. The Georgia Constitution provides that the Georgia Supreme Court possesses jurisdiction to directly hear trial court level appeals from the following classes of cases:
Actions involving the interpretation of federal treaties, the interpretation of the Georgia State Constitution, or the interpretation of the United States Constitution;
Actions questioning the constitutionality of a law, ordinance, or constitutional provision;
Habeas corpus cases; and
Actions where the death sentence has (or could be) imposed.
Grants of Certiorari Following a Georgia Court of Appeals’ Decision. As a means of reserving the most significant cases for highest court review, the Georgia Supreme Court is empowered to deny or grant an applicant’s certiorari petition following a Georgia Court of Appeals’ decision. As explained above, most appeals must first go to an intermediate appellate court. Following a Court of Appeals’ decision, some litigants may even seek a higher level of appellate review. Those persons can file an application (called a certiorari petition) to the Georgia Supreme Court. Certiorari is not a matter of right. The Georgia Supreme Court, should it decide to hear the appeal, will only do so if the appeal raises an issue of great concern, gravity, or importance to the public.
Certified Question from the Georgia Court of Appeals. In limited circumstances, the Georgia Court of Appeals may find itself split; or otherwise unable to apply an opaque, conflicting, esoteric, or arcane rule of law. In those cases, the Georgia Court of Appeals can certify a question to the Georgia Supreme Court for instruction. The Georgia Supreme Court’s answer to the question of law would be binding precedent on the Court of Appeals, who would then apply the precedent in resolving the appeal at issue.
There are two significant limitations concerning the types of questions that the Georgia Court of Appeals may certify to the Georgia Supreme Court. First, the question must be one purely of law, and cannot intermingle any questions of fact. Second, if the answer to the certified question would constitute an ultimate decision of the main case, then the Georgia Supreme Court will refuse to entertain the question.
Certified Question from Other States’ Appellate Courts, the Federal District Courts, or the Federal Appellate Courts. On some occasions, a state appellate court in another jurisdiction (e.g, Florida, New York) will have need to apply the law of Georgia in a particular case. For example, many contracts have choice-of-law clauses, meaning that in case of a dispute, a particular state’s substantive laws will govern the case. Also, many federal court cases include a mixture of federal and state law claims.
These foreign proceedings may sometimes involve questions of Georgia law which are germane to the larger case. If there are no clear, controlling precedents from the Georgia appellate courts, then the foreign courts may certify questions to the Georgia Supreme Court concerning the interpretation of Georgia law.