"garbage In, Garbage Out": the Litigation Implosion Over the Unconstitutional Organization and Jurisdiction of the City Court of Atlanta - Edward C. Brewer Iii

JurisdictionGeorgia,United States
Publication year2000
CitationVol. 52 No. 1

"Garbage In, Garbage Out": The Litigation Implosion Over the Unconstitutional Organization and Jurisdiction of the City Court of Atlantaby Edward C. Brewer, III*

I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.1

I. Introduction

The City Court of Atlanta, the primary traffic court for Atlanta, Georgia, has exercised jurisdiction since 1996 over more than one million traffic violations and, since 1988 and under two statutes, some fifty thousand nontraffic misdemeanors.2 The City Court's first predecessor, the Traffic Court of Atlanta, adjudicated traffic law violations from 1955 to 19673 and was replaced in 1967 by a second court, also known as the City Court, which existed until 1996.4 That City Court's jurisdiction was expanded in 1988 to include nontraffic misdemeanors arising from the same occurrence as the traffic violation.5 In 1996 the City Court was "re-create[d]" as "a system of state courts," and its same-occurrence misdemeanor jurisdiction was included within the new court's jurisdiction.6 In its various incarnations over forty-five years, the City Court has proven to be a highly efficient and effective forum for resolving traffic cases.

An earlier article7 suggested that the 1988 and 1996 City Court statutes are unconstitutional for a variety of reasons. Most simply, the 1996 "recreation" of the City Court as a state court and the 1988 and 1996 grants of same-occurrence misdemeanor jurisdiction violate Articles III, VT, and XI of the 1983 Georgia Constitution.8 The result is that either the court's entire jurisdiction from 1996 to the present, the court's same-occurrence misdemeanor jurisdiction from 1988 to the present, or both, have been and are being exercised unconstitutionally. This article will discuss the analytical underpinnings of the state court litigation that can be expected to follow in the wake of the court's constitutional and jurisdictional problems.

A. Recent Developments in the City Court of Atlanta

In July 1998 the Court Services Division of the National Center for State Courts ("NCSC") began a study of the City Court of Atlanta, which culminated in January 2000 in a three-volume report entitled AManagement Review of the City Court of Atlanta.9 The NCSC Management Review made 211 recommendations for improved administration of the City Court,10 over forty of which were implemented by May 2000 and almost eighty of which were addressed in the court's 2000 budget.11 The report covers the subjects of organization, workflow, finance, records, forms analysis, automation, and caseflow.12 An early draft of the Management Review, which was submitted to the City Court, resulted in the preparation of a Revised Draft dated December 1999, reflecting comments made by the City Court of Atlanta Management Study Task Force Committee ("the Task Force") in a Final Master List of Errata, {"Final Master List") dated October 1, 1999.13 It appears the Task Force thought the Court Services Division was critical of the City Court's management and operation. In any event, the Task Force was critical of the earlier draft, which it said contained "errors which seem pervasive throughout the entire report" and "errors . . . identified as to a specific page or to a specific 'Recommendation' because it presents a conclusion based upon some incorrect or inaccurate premise."14 The Task Force maintained, in language from which the title of this Article is partly derived, that "[s]everal of the errors are of such a significant nature as to substantially alter the conclusions drawn from this wrong input. 'Garbage In; Garbage Out.'"15

This Article, like the earlier article, is based on the same premises as those that led the City Court to request that the management study be conducted.16 "Knowing that the time had come for the court to make serious changes and to be given meaningful direction, [the City Court] decided to undertake a task which most courts may not have the courage to entertain."17 The Task Force correctly argued:

Hardly [ever] does any organization hang its dirty laundry for all to see. However, our court believes that the false gods of vanity and pride must be set aside if changes are to occur for the common good of all. If a dialogue without rigorous honesty cannot exist, then real solutions cannot be forged.18

Perhaps the City Court's courageous undertaking will include a self-examination of the dirty laundry of its own unconstitutional existence and lack of subject matter jurisdiction because, under B & D Fabricators v. D.H. Blair Investment Banking Corp.,19 the City Court has the same duty as an appellate court to examine its own jurisdiction.20

The first case that raised the issue was Georgia v. Wickham.21 In Wickham the City Court, without requesting any briefs on the issues, summarily denied a motion to dismiss or to transfer to the State Court of Fulton County based in part on the arguments raised in the earlier article.22 If those decisions are any indication of the approach being taken, then the City Court's response to these critical constitutional concerns about its existence and jurisdiction would seem to have more in common with the "false gods of vanity and pride" than with "rigorous honesty," leaving "the common good of all" unrealized and "real solutions" unforged.23

The Task Force did make several observations on the merits that may be instructive in the litigation of the constitutional issues of the court's existence and jurisdiction. The Final Master List clearly states the City Court is a special court of Georgia, not a state court and not a municipal court:

It is apparent from the entire study that the state law which created this court, and which describes the duties and functions of the chief judge and other court personnel, was either ignored or not acknowledged. Throughout the report, recommendations are made based upon the court being some type of municipal court, while in other instances, it appears that there are efforts to treat the court as a state court. This court is neither a state court as defined by the Georgia Constitution and state statutes,f24 ] nor a municipal court created by City Charter. [25 ] It is a special court, created by the state legislature under the powers of the Georgia Constitution and given state court

jurisdiction, to handle a high volume of cases. Such courts may be created in all Georgia cities with populations of 300,000 or more based upon the last census.[26 ] Initially, this court was created in 1967. However, being the only court of its kind in the entire state, through the years of its existence, laws became effective for "state courts", "superior" courts, "probate" courts and "magistrate" courts that did not include or reference this court. These other courts can be found in many jurisdictions, but this unique court only flourished in the City of Atlanta.[27 ] Therefore, in order to understand and fully appreciate the unique nature of our court, it is strongly requested that the entire copy of the Act creating the court be referred to and attached as an Appendix to the Final Study.28

The Task Force later repeated its assessment that "[t]he court is not a municipal entity such as The Atlanta Municipal Court."29 However, the Task Force made clear that "the cases handled by the court are overwhelmingly classified as misdemeanors. In addition to traffic misdemeanors, this court also tries other misdemeanors that arise out of the traffic stop. In reality there are very few city 'ordinance' violations that are filed in the City Court of Atlanta."30 The Task Force remarked that "there are some states that do not treat their traffic cases the same as criminal cases. Georgia, like most states, is not one of those jurisdictions. Therefore, the Court must follow the procedures outlined in our state statutes including the criminal procedure laws."31 Furthermore, the City Court must also follow the principles of Georgia law governing courts with limited constitutional and criminal jurisdiction.32

B. Nature and Scope of the Present Arguments

The City Court's unconstitutionality presents a significant and pressing question for the judges and solicitor of the City Court, for past, present, and future City Court defendants and their attorneys, and for the State of Georgia: What is to be done? The Judicial Engine article proposed solutions for the General Assembly in restructuring the City Court in a constitutional manner by recreating a Traffic Division for the Municipal Court of Atlanta as part of more comprehensive legislation affecting municipal courts in three or more large counties in Georgia.33 This Article addresses the state procedural alternatives that criminal defendants have for bringing direct and collateral challenges against the City Court's judgments and that the Georgia courts, for their part, have available for managing the litigation that may be anticipated.

The methods for challenging a court's existence, a court's jurisdiction, or a judge's authority to take judicial action may be divided into two general categories: direct and collateral challenges.34 The direct challenges may lie in the trial court or on appeal, and the primary question is whether the defendant must raise the issue "in the first instance" before the court whose existence or jurisdiction, or the judge whose authority, is being challenged.35 The collateral challenges include the writ of habeas corpus.36

The law of direct and collateral challenges to the City Court's judgments, although complex, provides fairly clear answers for criminal defendants and courts in Georgia. Georgia is one of two states in the United States (the other is Colorado) in which the judgments of an unconstitutional de facto court are void and may be challenged not only by raising the issue in the trial court in the first instance but also by raising it both directly on appeal and...

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