On September 10, 2013, I found myself atop the state’s judicial building right outside the chambers of the Georgia Supreme Court. It is a very long story; and the case is still pending so I will not to comment on the facts or particulars of the case. (The Georgia Supreme Court’s website has video viewing of all oral arguments for the public to view).
However, it is the experience that I want to share with you. About 15% of my practice consists of criminal appeals. The bulk of the work involved in these appeals is reading the trial transcripts, looking for possible errors, researching case law, and finally drafting an appellate brief. For some, this would be very boring. For me, I enjoy it and know that it improves my performance as a lawyer because it keeps me up to date on changes in criminal law and procedure.
The vast majority of appeals are simply read by the appellate courts and ruled on. They issue opinions in each case which is how case law is made in Georgia. However, there are rare circumstances where the Georgia Court of Appeals or the Georgia Supreme Court will either grant a request for oral argument or oral argument is mandatory. That rare moment came for me in the summer of 2013.
For four months I worked on my brief and oral argument. I practiced in the mirror, in front of other lawyers, non-lawyers, and even put my wife, Shea through this exercise. My son, Jake would just look at me with an inquiring grin on his face from time to time before he got back to his I-pad.
Finally, the morning of September 10th blossomed. It was a mild day with little traffic as I headed to Atlanta. When I got to Capitol Square, the man at the parking deck said that we could park in the legislator’s area since they were not in session. I did drive by Dusty Hightower’s parking spot. (Dusty later chastised me for not parking in his spot). However, I had judicial issues on my mind, not legislative. That may have been the only chance the ole Jeep would have to park in the General Assembly parking lot. At any rate, I went to the lower deck.
When I got to the chambers of the Georgia Supreme Court, we watched three civil cases argued before it was our turn. During those cases, the seven justices asked very little questions. I was sure that my detailed outline would be presented without interruption on this day. My opposing counsel may have felt the same.
Game time. Counsel for the State introduced herself and was immediately interrupted by one of the longest serving members of the Court. She did an excellent job; but was mostly engaged with the justices by answering their questions. One out of right field. The next out of left. I was impressed by her professionalism and preparedness.
My turn. At this moment, as I try to do in all of my cases, I gave it over to God. While this is what God wants us to do when we are mightily challenged, it certainly does not take away all of the nervousness inside of you as you begin to speak to seven people in black robes. Anyone who tells you otherwise is being less than truthful.
After I introduced myself, I suddenly felt and listened to the barrage of questions being thrown my way. My outline is useless. For the next 20 minutes, I addressed questions from every justice on the bench save one. Some of the questions were ones that neither myself nor opposing counsel even addressed in our briefs. I have never seen such an active bench in all of my preparation, which included watching numerous prior oral arguments on the Court’s website. Finally, it ended with a whisper. The Chief Justice thanked us for our preparation and time. We left the courtroom.
As of today, the Court has not ruled on the case. I do expect a decision by the end of the year. However, I must admit that while the decision itself is important to me, the most important aspect of the case was the experience itself.
As I look at turning 40 on October 26, I have come to embrace the challenges that God puts before me. I was once told by an older and wiser lawyer that God challenges us in life with certain cases to relieve us from the burden of self-reliance and place that burden on God’s shoulder. My experience at the Supreme Court would be a good example of this type of challenge.