When a court renders a decision in a matter, it may write an opinion of that decision that explains its ruling. Court opinions can provide researchers with the court’s interpretation of statutes and regulations, and their application to a set of facts. Depending on the circumstances, these opinions can also make new law. In common law matters not covered by statutes or regulations, case law is the only source of primary legal authority.
In order to effectively locate applicable Georgia court opinions, a researcher must have a basic understanding of the court system. The picture below provides a visual representation of the Georgia Court System. Similar to the federal system, there are three basic levels of courts in Georgia: trial, intermediate appellate, and court of last resort. When conducting case law research, researchers will primarily focus on locating opinions rendered by the Georgia Supreme Court and the Georgia Court of Appeals.
Only opinions issued by the Georgia Supreme Court and Georgia Court of Appeals and selected for publication will be binding authority in Georgia. Opinions selected for publication are known as reported opinions. Opinions not selected for publication are known as unreported opinions.
Reported opinions will appear in one or more of the following Georgia case reporters: Georgia Reports, Georgia Appeals Reports, South Eastern Reporter, and Georgia Cases.
For decades, print case reporters were the only source attorneys used to access published case law. While more researches are accessing case law online, it is still important to understand print case reporters. Only Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals opinions designated for publication in a reporter will be binding authority in Georgia.
There are four case reporters that publish Georgia court opinions: Georgia Reports, Georgia Appeals Reports, South Eastern Reporter, and Georgia Cases.
Georgia Reports (Ga.) is the official reporter of Supreme Court of Georgia opinions, and includes all published opinions since 1846.
Georgia Appeals Reports (Ga. App) is the official reporter of Georgia Court of Appeals opinions, and includes all published opinions since 1907.
The South Eastern Reporter (S.E.) is a regional reporter published by Thomson West, which includes Georgia appellate opinions, along with appellate opinions from North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. While this is an unofficial reporter of Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals opinions, researchers may find these reporters more useful than the official versions because they include headnotes with references to the West Topic and Key Number system. The South Eastern Reporter (S.E.) is currently in its second series, the South Eastern Reporter, 2nd. (S.E.2d).
Georgia Cases (S.E.) is a Thomson West reporter that includes only Georgia cases published in the South Eastern Reporter (S.E.). This is a useful set for researchers who only need access to Georgia appellate opinions, and also want to take advantage of West headnotes and references to the West Topic and Key Number system. Georgia Cases (S.E.) utilizes the same citation system as the South Eastern Reporter (S.E.), and is also in its second series, Georgia Cases, 2nd. (S.E.2d).
Regardless of whether you locate a case in a print reporter or through an online source, Georgia Supreme Court Rule 22 requires researchers to cite to the official Georgia reporters, Georgia Reports and Georgia Appeals Reports. It's also common practice for researchers to include a parallel citation to the regional reporter that contains the case opinion. An example of a parallel citation is Ponder v. Williams, 80 Ga. App.145, 55 S.E.2d 668 (1949).
If a researcher cites to an unreported case, Georgia Supreme Court Rule 22 requires researchers to cite to the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals case number and decision date.
Determining if a case is still good law is quite different from updating a statute or a regulation. Unlike codes, which only include the laws currently in force, case reporters can include cases that have been overruled. In order to determine if a case is still good law, researchers must consult a citator.
When using a citator, it is important for researchers to know the difference between the cited source and the citing sources. The cited source is the case you are trying to update. The citing sources are the sources that have cited the case you are updating.
While each citator service is slightly different, they all have similar features that allow users to perform the same basic functions. When updating a case, researchers should perform the following functions:
There are currently no free citator services. The citator services that researchers can use to determine if their case is still good law: Lexis Advance's Shepard's and WestlawNext's KeyCite. Researchers can access the citator function within the case opinions.
While trial court decisions and verdicts do no set legal precedent, attorneys may still find them useful when representing clients. Among other things, trial court verdicts can provide attorneys with information on how a judge ruled in a matter, and the amount of damages rewarded by the court.
There is no official reporter of trial court decisions. However, there are several commercial resources that researchers can use to access Georgia trial decisions.