Buckner-Webb v. State

Decision Date20 September 2022
Docket NumberS21G1281
Citation314 Ga. 823,878 S.E.2d 481
Parties BUCKNER-WEBB et al. v. The STATE
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court

Stephen Randall Scarborough, Office of the Public Defender, 100 Peachtree Street NW, Suite 1600, Atlanta, Georgia 30303, for Appellant.

Lyndsey Hurst Rudder, General Counsel, FSIG, 41 Islanders Retreat, Savannah, Georgia 31411, Kevin Christopher Armstrong, Senior A.D.A., Fani T. Willis, District Attorney, Fulton County District Attorney's Office, 136 Pryor Street, S.W., Atlanta, Georgia 30303, for Appellee.

LaGrua, Justice.

We granted certiorari in this case to determine whether a trial court's order denying a motion to withdraw as counsel based on alleged conflicts of interest is immediately appealable under the collateral order doctrine. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that such orders do not fall within the "very small class" of trial court orders that are appealable under that doctrine, Duke v. State , 306 Ga. 171, 172 (1), 829 S.E.2d 348 (2019), and thus we affirm the Court of Appealsdecision in Buckner-Webb v. State , 360 Ga. App. 329, 861 S.E.2d 181 (2021), albeit for different reasons.

I. Pertinent Facts and Procedural History

In March 2013, Diane Buckner-Webb, Theresia Copeland, Sharon Davis-Williams, Tabeeka Jordan, Michael Pitts, and Shani Robinson (collectively, "Defendants") were indicted by a Fulton County grand jury, along with 35 other educators and administrators of the Atlanta Public Schools ("APS"), for conspiracy to violate the Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations ("RICO") Act, OCGA § 16-14-1 et seq., and other crimes, arising out of their alleged participation in a conspiracy to alter students’ standardized test scores. Of the 35 indicted, 12 APS employees, including Defendants, were tried together between August 2014 and April 2015. In April 2015, the jury found Defendants and five others guilty of at least one count of conspiracy to violate the RICO Act.

In April and May 2015, Defendants filed timely motions for new trial through their respective trial attorneys. The trial transcripts were filed into the record between June 2015 and October 2016. Thereafter, despite the fact that each Defendant was represented by a separate attorney at trial, the Circuit Public Defender appointed only one attorney, Stephen R. Scarborough, to jointly represent Defendants as appellate counsel, and he formally entered an appearance on Defendants’ behalf on April 26, 2017.

The trial court held a status hearing on Defendantsmotions for new trial in December 2018. Following the status hearing, Defendants were given six months to file particularized motions for new trial, and the State was given six months to respond.

On June 28, 2019, more than two years after Scarborough's appointment as appellate counsel for Defendants and around the time Defendants’ particularized motions for new trial were due for filing, Scarborough filed a "Motion for Rule 1.7[1 ] Determinations" to address alleged conflicts of interest arising from his joint representation of Defendants. Scarborough also filed a motion to withdraw as counsel based upon this conflict of interest. The trial court heard the motion to withdraw on August 8, 2019.2

In support of his request to withdraw as counsel, Scarborough asserted that: (1) he was in "an ethically untenable position" because his loyalty to each Defendant would require him to omit issues and claims he would otherwise raise in the motions for new trial or, at the very least, to argue those issues "less robustly" than he otherwise would; (2) he had an actual conflict under Rule 1.7 because his duties to each Defendant would materially and adversely affect his performance and legal representation of the others; (3) as required by Rule 1.7, he met separately with Defendants and advised them of the conflict, and Defendants declined to waive the conflict and requested the appointment of conflict-free appellate counsel; and (4) he contacted the General Counsel's Office at the State Bar of Georgia and, after describing the circumstances, was advised that he could not continue representing Defendants in this case.

In response to Scarborough's assertions, the State argued that there was no conflict of interest in Scarborough's representation of Defendants on appeal. In furtherance thereof, the State asserted that Scarborough did not provide any specificity as to the purported conflict of interest and that any purported conflict of interest was merely an "erroneous assumption," unsupported by case law, and inapplicable in a RICO conspiracy case where all of the evidence presented was relevant to all Defendants. After hearing additional argument from both sides, the trial court conducted an ex parte conference in chambers for Scarborough to detail the exact nature of the conflict of interest, which Scarborough noted he could only do "to a degree."3

Following the ex parte conference, the trial court resumed the hearing in open court and denied the motion to withdraw, stating that, after "a private session with the public defender where the public defender laid out what they term specifics about conflict," the court "did not find the conflict specific enough for anybody in this case." However, the trial court advised the parties that it would like to "expedite the Appeals Court to look at this" and indicated it would issue a certificate of immediate review to "ask [the Court of Appeals] to take this issue up."4 On August 21, 2019, the trial court entered a written order denying the motion to withdraw, stating simply that "[f]or the reasons stated at the [August 8, 2019] hearing, the motion is hereby denied." On the same date, the trial court issued a certificate of immediate review under OCGA § 5-6-34 (b).5

Defendants filed an application for interlocutory review in the Court of Appeals on September 3, 2019, seeking permission to appeal the trial court's order denying the motion to withdraw under OCGA § 5-6-34 (b). Before the Court of Appeals ruled on Defendants’ application, Defendants also filed a direct appeal of the trial court's order on September 20, 2019, asserting that the order was directly appealable under the collateral order doctrine.

The Court of Appeals denied Defendants’ application for interlocutory review on September 25, 2019.6 On June 29, 2021, in a split decision issued by the whole court, the Court of Appeals also dismissed Defendants’ direct appeal for lack of jurisdiction, concluding that the collateral order doctrine did not apply to the trial court's order denying the motion to withdraw as counsel. See Buckner-Webb , 360 Ga. App. at 331, 861 S.E.2d 181. Defendants then filed a second petition for a writ of certiorari in this Court, which we granted on December 14, 2021, to decide the first-impression legal question set forth above.

2. Analysis

(a) Legal Backdrop

Our General Assembly has established a statutory framework governing appeals in Georgia. See Rivera v. Washington , 298 Ga. 770, 777-778, 784 S.E.2d 775 (2016). See also OCGA § 5-6-34.

OCGA § 5-6-34 governs what trial court orders may be reviewed immediately by an appellate court. Specifically, subsection (a) of the statute lists the trial court judgments and orders that may be appealed immediately. This list includes all final judgments where the case is no longer pending in the court below [except as provided in OCGA § 5-6-35 ].

Duke , 306 Ga. at 172 (1), 829 S.E.2d 348 (citation and punctuation omitted). This list also includes "specific types of trial court rulings that the General Assembly has deemed important enough to the case, or dispositive enough of the case, to warrant an immediate appeal, even though such rulings are often interlocutory rather than final judgments." Rivera , 298 Ga. at 773, 784 S.E.2d 775 (citing OCGA § 5-6-34 (a) (2)-(13) (citation and punctuation omitted)). See also In re Paul , 270 Ga. 680, 682, 513 S.E.2d 219 (1999) ( OCGA § 5-6-34 (a) (2)-(13) allows direct appeals of "judgments or orders that may have an irreparable effect on the rights of the parties, such as rulings in contempt, injunctions, and mandamus actions.").

Other cases can be appealed immediately only with permission from both the trial court and the appellate court. OCGA § 5-6-34 (b). When a trial court enters an order, decision, or judgment not otherwise subject to immediate appeal under OCGA § 5-6-34 (a), appeal from that order may be had only where the trial judge certifies within ten days of entry thereof that the order, decision, or judgment is of such importance to the case that immediate review should be had. Upon such certification, the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals may thereupon, in their respective discretions, permit an appeal to be taken from the order, decision or judgment.

Duke , 306 Ga. at 172 (1), 829 S.E.2d 348 (citing OCGA § 5-6-34 (b) ) (punctuation omitted). Accordingly, as a general rule, when a party seeks to appeal a non-final order issued by a trial court before the case is fully adjudicated below, Georgia courts require adherence to the interlocutory procedures of OCGA § 5-6-34 (b) for appellate review. See Rivera , 298 Ga. at 777–778, 784 S.E.2d 781.

Although the framework for appellate review has been statutorily mandated by the General Assembly, our appellate courts have nonetheless created an exception by allowing immediate appeals of

a very small class of interlocutory rulings [that] are effectively final in that they finally determine claims of right separable from, and collateral to, rights asserted in the action, too important to be denied review and too independent of the cause itself to require that appellate consideration be deferred until the whole case is adjudicated.

Duke , 306 Ga. at 172-173 (1), 829 S.E.2d 348 (citation and punctuation omitted). To qualify for immediate appeal under this "collateral order doctrine,"7 an interlocutory order must be "effectively final"—a status we assess by...

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    • November 2, 2022
    ...this category past decisions that "uncritically import" holdings of federal courts into state law. Buckner-Webb v. State , 314 Ga. 823, 834 (1), 878 S.E.2d 481 (2022) (Pinson, J., concurring) (quoting Elliott , 305 Ga. at 188, 824 S.E.2d 265 (II) (C), 824 S.E.2d 265 ). See also id. ("When w......

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