Seals v. State

CourtSupreme Court of Georgia
Citation860 S.E.2d 419,311 Ga. 739
Decision Date18 June 2021
Docket NumberS20G0931
Parties SEALS v. The STATE.

311 Ga. 739
860 S.E.2d 419



Supreme Court of Georgia.

Decided: June 18, 2021

Lawrence W. Daniel, Lawrence W. Daniel, PC, 1079 Northcliffe Drive, NW, Atlanta, Georgia 30318, James Kenneth Luttrell, P.O. Box 4104, Canton, Georgia 30114, for Appellan.

Ryan Reese Leonard, District Attorney, Sarah Elizabeth Hilleren, Elizabeth Dalia Racine, Douglas County District Attorney's Office, 8700 Hospital Drive, Douglas County Courthouse, Douglasville, Georgia 30134, Sean Alexander Garrett, Assistant County Attorney, DeKalb County Department of Law, Manuel J. Maloof Center, Fifth Floor, 1300 Commerce Drive, Decatur, Georgia 30030, for Appellee.

Peterson, Justice.

860 S.E.2d 421

Defendants in criminal cases may take immediate appeals from final judgments, which OCGA § 5-6-34 (a) (1) defines as when "the case is no longer pending in the court below[.]" In applying this familiar principle, we have often dismissed for lack of jurisdiction appeals in criminal cases because verdicts have been rendered or sentences have been imposed on less than all counts of an indictment or accusation. This case presents the question of whether the same rule applies when one or more counts have been "dead-docketed." It does; dead-docketing, while a common and longstanding practice in Georgia courts, has almost no statutory authority and none that would allow different treatment here. And precedent from our Court of Appeals has for decades made clear that when a count is dead-docketed, the case remains pending in the trial court. Accordingly, we hold that dead-docketing a count leaves that count undecided and, thus, leaves the entire "case pending in the court below." Such a case cannot be appealed as a final judgment under OCGA § 5-6-34 (a) (1) ; instead, it requires a certificate of immediate review, which Demarquis Seals did not seek. We therefore affirm the Court of Appeals's dismissal of his appeal.

The relevant facts are not disputed. In June 2017, a grand jury returned an indictment against Seals charging him with one count of rape and one count of child molestation. He was tried before a jury in October 2018. The jury found Seals guilty of child molestation but could not reach a verdict on the rape count, prompting the trial court to declare a mistrial as to that count. On the disposition sheet filed on November 5, 2018, the trial court entered a 20-year sentence of imprisonment on the child molestation count, and noted that the rape count had been mistried and was to be "re-tried." Less than a month later, the trial court entered a separate order placing the rape count on the dead-docket.

Seals filed a motion for new trial on November 5, 2018, and subsequently amended it.1 The trial court denied Seals's motion in August 2019, and Seals filed a timely notice of appeal to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal in February 2020, concluding that the dead-docketed rape count caused the case to remain pending in the trial court and that Seals was therefore required to follow the interlocutory appeal procedures to appeal his conviction and sentence on the child molestation count. We granted certiorari to consider whether the Court of Appeals correctly dismissed Seals's appeal.2

1. This is a case of statutory construction.

This appeal turns on what it means for a "case" to become "no longer pending in the court below." In answering that question, we apply the familiar principles by which we construe statutes. "When we consider the meaning of a statute, we must presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant." Deal v. Coleman , 294 Ga. 170, 172-173 (1) (a), 751 S.E.2d 337 (2013) (citation and punctuation omitted). That presumption means that "we must afford the statutory text its plain and ordinary meaning, we must view the statutory text in the

860 S.E.2d 422

context in which it appears, and we must read the statutory text in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would." Id. (citations and punctuation omitted).

The ordinary public meaning of statutory text that matters is the meaning the statutory text had at the time it was enacted. See FDIC v. Loudermilk , 295 Ga. 579, 589-590 (2) & n.8, 761 S.E.2d 332 (2014) (considering original public meaning of statute); cf. Olevik v. State , 302 Ga. 228, 235 (2) (c) (i), 806 S.E.2d 505 (2017) ("original public meaning ... is simply shorthand for the meaning the people understood a provision to have at the time" it was enacted). Determining such meaning requires considering the text in the context in which it was enacted: "As we have said many times before when interpreting legal text, ‘we do not read words in isolation, but rather in context.’ " City of Guyton v. Barrow , 305 Ga. 799, 805 (3), 828 S.E.2d 366 (2019) (quoting Smith v. Ellis , 291 Ga. 566, 573 (3) (a), 731 S.E.2d 731 (2012) ). "The primary determinant of a text's meaning is its context, which includes the structure and history of the text and the broader context in which that text was enacted, including statutory and decisional law that forms the legal background of the written text." City of Guyton , 305 Ga. at 805 (3), 828 S.E.2d 366 (citing Undisclosed LLC v. State , 302 Ga. 418, 420 (2) (a), 807 S.E.2d 393 (2017) ; Olevik , 302 Ga. at 235-236 (2) (c) (i), 806 S.E.2d 505 ; and Deal, 294 Ga. at 172-173 (1) (a), 751 S.E.2d 337 ).

In applying these principles to this case, we confront several questions. First, is a "case" with multiple counts still "pending" when some of those counts remain unresolved? As we explain below, the answer generally is yes. Second, is there anything in Georgia law that would call for a different conclusion when the unresolved count is dead-docketed? As we explain below, both as a matter of the few Georgia statutes that reference dead-docketing, and as a matter of the legal context pre-dating the 1984 enactment of the language of OCGA § 5-6-34 (a) (1), the answer is no.

2. A case with multiple counts is still pending when one of those counts remains undisposed.

(a) The original public meaning of OCGA § 5-6-34 (a) (1) leads us to conclude that a case is not final and is still pending below if one or more counts are unresolved.

The right of immediate review under OCGA § 5-6-34 (a) (1) has roots dating back more than 150 years. An 1868 version of the predecessor to OCGA § 5-6-34 (a) (1) provided as follows:

No cause shall be carried to the Supreme Court upon any bill of exceptions, so long as the same is pending in the Court below, unless the decision or judgment complained of, if it had been rendered as claimed by the plaintiff in error, would have been a final disposition of the cause.

Code of 1868, § 4191. This Court construed that provision as meaning that "as long as a defendant remains in the court below or other issues remain untried there , the case is pending there, and no final judgment has been had[.]" Zorn v. Lamar , 71 Ga. 80, 82 (1883) (emphasis added). Relying on this Court's precedents, the Court of Appeals concluded that the word "cause" as used in the statute, referred "to the entire case, the entire suit or litigation, and the entire question being litigated under the petition, and as long as any portion of the ‘cause’ is pending in the court below the ‘cause’ cannot be carried to an appellate court," unless the judgment complained of would have been the final disposition of the case. Carhart v. Mackle , 22 Ga. App. 520, 522, 96 S.E. 591 (1918).

The language of this provision was materially the same for almost 100 years until the Appellate Practice Act was enacted in 1965. See Ga. L. 1965, p. 18, § 1. The Appellate Practice Act changed the language to say that there was a right to an immediate appeal "[w]here the judgment is final — that is to say — where the cause is no longer pending in the court below[.]" Id. Despite the rewording, we concluded that the law regarding reviewable judgments did not "materially change." O'Kelley v. Evans , 223 Ga. 512, 513, 156 S.E.2d 450 (1967). This Court and the

860 S.E.2d 423

Court of Appeals continued to hold that a judgment was not final if there were claims that remained pending below. See, e.g., Gorrell v. Fowler , 247 Ga. 67, 67, 273 S.E.2d 852 (1981) ; Farmers Co-op. Ins. Co. v. Hicks , 227 Ga. 755, 755, 182 S.E.2d 895 (1971) ; Register v. Kandlbinder , 132 Ga. App. 435, 435, 208 S.E.2d 565 (1974) ; Spell v. State , 120 Ga. App. 398, 399, 170 S.E.2d 701 (1969).

In 1984, the language of what is now OCGA § 5-6-34 (a) (1) was changed slightly, replacing the word "cause" with "case." See Ga. L. 1984, p. 599, § 1. But no decision has suggested that this change materially altered the statute's meaning as to what constitutes a final judgment. Rather, construing that current language, which applies here, we have held that when a defendant is prosecuted on a multiple-count indictment, the case is not final and appealable until the trial court enters a written judgment on each count of the indictment. See Keller v. State , 275 Ga. 680, 681, 571 S.E.2d 806 (2002) ; see also State v. Riggs , 301 Ga. 63, 65 (1), 799 S.E.2d 770 (2017) ("When a trial court fails to impose separate sentences for each count of which a defendant was found guilty, it has not entered a proper judgment."...

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