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Georgia Supreme Court: Trial Courts Are Bound to Follow Precedent of Court of Appeals

by Harold Hempstead

The Supreme Court of Georgia granted John A. Esposito’s application for discretionary appeal to answer in the affirmative the question of whether trial courts are bound to follow precedents of the Court of Appeals that have not been overturned.

On June 11, 2022, the trial court issued an order denying Esposito’s extraordinary motion for a new trial and motion for DNA testing. In that order, the court acknowledged the Court of Appeals’ decision in White v. State, 814 S.E.2d 447 (Ga. 2018), in which the appellate court explained that Georgia’s DNA statute, OCGA § 5-5-41(c) limits a trial court’s inquiry into whether the petitioner made “a threshold factual showing … that the evidence to be tested is available and that it has been subject to a chain of custody. The statute does not permit … [a] trial court to speculate as to the viability of any DNA potentially located on the evidence in question.”

Despite acknowledging the White decision, one of the three alternative grounds that the trial court used to deny Esposito’s motion was that he failed to show that DNA that belonged to others, had not been transferred to the two tree limbs and eyeglasses he wanted tested.

On July 11, 2022, Esposito filed an application for discretionary review in the Georgia Supreme Court on the trial court’s denial of his motion.

On August 8, 2022, the Court asked the parties to the appeal “to address this question. ‘May a trial court refuse to follow a precedent of the Court of Appeals on the ground that it was erroneous when that precedent has not been overruled?’”

The State ignored the question in its brief even though it had previously argued in the trial court that that court was not bound by the decision in White, which had not been overruled. After the Court ordered the State to file a substitute brief, the State conceded that it erred in its trial court argument.

The Court explained that the “Georgia Constitution states clearly: ‘The decisions of the Court of Appeals insofar as not in conflict with those of the Supreme Court shall bind all courts except the Supreme Court as precedents.” Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. VI, Sec. V, Par. III. Thus, the Court held that “this provision in the Georgia Constitution plainly answers the question presented for review in the negative and that trial courts indeed must follow the precedents of the Georgia Court of Appeals. It chided: “The State should not have argued otherwise, and the trial court should not have adopted such a patently frivolous argument.”

Although the Court concluded that the trial court erred in accepting the State’s flawed argument with respect to White, the Court agreed with the two other reasons that the trial court relied upon in denying Esposito’s motions.

Accordingly, the Court vacated its “prior order granting Esposito’s application for discretionary appeal,” denied his application, and dismissed his pending appeal. See: Esposito v. State, 881 S.E.2d 686 (Ga. 2022).

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