Georgia Republican Gov. Nathan Deal is calling for state lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment that, with the approval of voters, would create a new state court system solely to handle business disputes.
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Any push from Deal’s administration would set up a rare, but precedented scenario requiring the Republican seek support from Democrats for what appears to be one of the top items on his policy agenda.
Amending the state constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate.
“They’re going to need us at the end of the day,” said Democratic Sen. Jen Jordan, whose victory in a special election last year broke Republican’s two-thirds majority in the state Senate. Republicans already lacked control of a two-thirds majority in the state House.
Adding to the challenge, complete Republican support is far from guaranteed for any constitutional amendments backed by Deal’s administration. A few Republicans voted against Deal’s “Opportunity School District” proposal, which narrowly passed out of the legislature and was ultimately defeated by voters in 2016.
Deal announced plans for the constitutional amendment to create the business court at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs and Issues breakfast during the first week of the 2018 legislative session.
“A constitutional created business court would provide an efficient and dependable forum for litigants in every corner of our state,” said Deal, who often speaks about making Georgia hospitable to businesses, in the hopes of attracting more.
Many states have specialized business courts where complex, corporate cases can move quickly, and judges aren’t also tasked with criminal or auto accident cases, for example, said Bill Clark, director of political affairs for the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association.
“They just do complex business litigation, and so it allows those judges to focus on the issues that are important to the two parties, and hopefully bring resolution to the two parties,” said Clark.
Deal created the Court Reform Council last year through an executive order. A subcommittee of that council, chaired by the top lawyers in Deal’s administration, recommended creating a state business court.
The council said special business court judges should “have a demonstrable record of experience in complex litigation practice,” and should be appointed, unlike other state judges who are elected every six years. The council also suggested special business judges may need to serve longer than that, so they can become familiar with the types of cases in the courts.
While Clark said he supports the creation of statewide business court, appointing judges would go against what Clark, and the trial lawyers want, potentially creating conflict in the legislature.
“We think the people ought to be involved in making the decision as to who are these judges, and then holding them accountable, through periodic elections,” Clark said.
Democratic State Senator Jordan, a lawyer who said she has represented clients in an already existing Metro Atlanta business court, is in favor of establishing a business court system. But like Clark, Jordan said business court judges should be elected.
“What we don’t want to do is create this concierge court system for businesses that the taxpayers are going to fund,” she said.
Although the council suggested videoconferencing could be used, a point of debate may be whether the special business court is centered in Atlanta, like the Supreme Court of Georgia, or if there are special business courts throughout the state. The council presented both options, without making a recommendation.
Clark and trial lawyers favor courts be located throughout the state.
“If you’re a business and you’re in litigation in Valdosta, you want to know who those judges are and who those courts are,” said Clark. “Why should you have to bring your case to Atlanta, where only the Atlanta silk-stocking law firm lawyers know the judges? You want local judges, or a judge that’s from your area.”
Some examples of the types of cases that could be transferred to the special business court, per the recommendation of the council, include: antitrust, intellectual property, cybersecurity, and contract or business tort cases.
For some cases, a minimum amount of money would need to be at stake for the special business court to take up the case, but the council didn’t make specific a recommendation in that area.
The constitutional amendment creating the business court system hadn’t been filed, but House Republican majority whip Christian Coomer, who also served on the Court Reform Council, told Northwest Georgia News he would co-sponsor the legislation.
In his speech at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast, Deal seemed to hint at the challenge of passing the constitutional amendment during the 2018 state legislative session.
“If this is an issue that you are interested in, and I would suggest you should be,” Deal told the business leaders at the breakfast, “I encourage you to talk to your members of the General Assembly.”