Voters asked to create statewide business court
Shaddi Abusaid | Marietta Daily Journal | October 3, 2018
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of stories examining the constitutional amendments, referendums and special election questions Georgians will be asked to vote on in November.
One of five proposed constitutional amendments appearing on the Nov. 6 ballot asks voters to create a statewide court specializing in handling complex business disputes.
The intent behind the business court proposal is to remove certain cases from state and superior court dockets and speed them along in an effort to make Georgia more “business friendly.”
Fulton and Gwinnett counties already have special courts to handle such business disputes, as do North and South Carolina.
The ballot initiative, championed by Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, was approved in March after a 120-52 vote in the state House.
State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, an attorney who has argued cases in business courts, said she supports the creation of the new court in theory.
“The goal is to give business litigants a chance to get in front of judges who have a special expertise in business or corporate issues,” she said. “The whole idea is that it would be business-to-business disputes… They offer ways to deal with resolutions quickly so they’re not mired in litigation.”
Jordan said getting cases on the court’s “rocket docket” would allow Georgia businesses to settle their disputes sooner, saving both time and money that would otherwise go toward attorney’s fees.
But she raised concerns that the General Assembly has not passed enabling legislation laying out exactly how the court would function or which cases would qualify if the constitutional amendment is approved by voters this fall.
“We don’t really know what that looks like in terms of what those parameters will be,” she said. “It got pushed through at the last minute on Sine Die.”
If the ballot referendum passes, Jordan said her Senate colleagues and their House counterparts should make drafting accompanying legislation a top priority of the 2019 session.
Cobb Superior Court Administrator Tom Charron said local judges have studied the concept of rolling out a business court in Cobb for years.
“Statewide seems to make more sense,” he said. “It depends on how many and how complicated these large business cases are. My feeling is that a statewide court housed in Atlanta seems to make a lot more sense.”
If Lockheed has a case against one of its manufacturers or suppliers, for instance, those cases typically require extensive litigation and take a long time to resolve, Charron said.
Handling such disputes downtown would take those cases off the plates of Cobb’s judges.
Jordan said another downside of the proposed statewide court is that its judges would not have to seek re-election.
Instead, business judges would be appointed to five-year terms by the governor. Those appointments would be subject to the approval of a majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee and House Committee on the Judiciary, according to House Resolution 993.
They could then be reappointed by the governor for any number of consecutive terms so long as they meet certain qualifications at the time of their appointment, according to the language of the resolution.
“What we don’t want to get into is a system where these judges are appointed, but aren’t subject to re-election,” Jordan said. “There should be some accountability… What we don’t want is some concierge court system that isn’t subject to the will of the people.”
Jordan said she hopes to strike a balance between meeting the needs of Georgia’s business community and holding judges accountable.
“If we don’t get the enabling legislation correct, then we could have some problems,” she said.
Kade Cullefer, executive director of Georgians for Lawsuit Reform, which pushed for the ballot referendum, said the pilot courts in Fulton and Gwinnett have been well-received and he would like to see the efforts expanded to all Georgia businesses.
“They would provide a faster resolution of cases because you would have a court specifically dedicated to these issues,” he said, adding that business courts typically resolve cases in about half the time it would typically take.
As for accountability, Cullefer said the governor would presumably only select judges with experience in complex commercial litigation. Those appointees would then need to be confirmed by both chambers’ judiciary committees before taking the bench.
Here is constitutional amendment question as it will appear on the November 6 ballot:
Creates a state-wide business court to lower costs, enhance efficiency, and promote predictable judicial outcomes.
House Resolution No. 993
Resolution Act No. 410
Ga. L. 2018, p. 1130
“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to create a state-wide business court, authorize superior court business court divisions, and allow for the appointment process for statewide business court judges in order to lower costs, improve the efficiency of all courts, and promote predictability of judicial outcomes in certain complex business disputes for the benefit of all citizens of this state?”