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Released Opinions

February 6, 2012

This morning the Supreme Court of Georgia released opinions in 23 cases, three of which are civil within the scope of our coverage. Brief summaries with links to the opinions are below.

S11A1960. Final Exit Network, Inc., et al. v. The State

This case began when a Forsyth County grand jury charged four individuals and the Final Exit Network of violating a number of state laws centering around violations of O.C.G.A. § 16-5-5, which prohibits offering to assist in a suicide. The defendants allegedly assisted in the suicide of John Celmer at his request by helping him breathe helium and then disposing of evidence.

Defendants sought to dismiss the indictment by alleging the statute is unconstitutional. The trial court denied the motion in an extensive order on April 19, 2011 and granted the defendants a certificate of immediate review on April 27, 2011.

Defendants applied for interlocutory review by the Supreme Court, alleging that the statute only prohibits advertising or assisting in a suicide, not assisting in a suicide itself. For that reason, defendants argue the statute is a “content-based restriction on the free speech rights of Georgia citizens,” in addition to being unconstitutionally vague.

On June 14, 2011, the Supreme Court granted unanimously granted the petition (Nahmias not participating) to consider the following issue:

  1. Did the trial court err in ruling that OCGA § 16-5-5 (b) is constitutional?

The Final Exit Network argues that the statute does not generally prohibit suicide, but rather focuses on speech – those who “publicly” advertise or hold themselves out as assisting with suicide. The State responds that the statute does not prohibit freedom of speech at all, but rather focuses on actors who assist in suicide.

The Court heard oral argument on the case on November 7, 2011.

On Monday, February 6, 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed the trial court’s judgment, finding the assisted suicide law is unconstitutional (Nahmias, not participating). Writing for the Court, Justice Thompson found the law was unconstitutional as a violation of free speech. The law targets speech based on its particular content, and did not meet the standard of strict scrutiny because the state was unable to show that the provisions related to advertising were an actual problem in need of solving. The law did not ban all assisted suicides with no restriction on protected speech nor did it prohibit offers to assist in suicide accompanied by an act to accomplish that goal. Thus, the law violates the free speech clauses of the US and Georgia constitutions.

S11G1047. Cardinale v. City of Atlanta et al.

This case concerns the enforcement of Georgia’s Open Meetings Act. The Atlanta City Council held an elected officials’ retreat and advertised it as a public meeting. During the retreat, Council members voted on whether to amend their rules on public comment at committee meetings. The minutes do not reflect how the individuals voted, but merely state that the membership was “not in support of amending the existing law.”

Cardinale was unable to obtain the exact vote and filed a pro se action, claiming he had a right to detailed information on which members voted for and against the rule change. The trial court granted the City’s motion to dismiss, finding that the Open Meetings Act did not require a detailed vote.

The Court of Appeals (McFadden, Phipps,  Andrews) unanimously affirmed the trial court ruling, finding that the Open Meetings Act did not require the disclosure of names in a non-roll-call vote, and that Cardinale’s complaint did not contain an allegation of an advertising violation.

Cardinale filed a pro se petition for certiorari and the City did not respond.

On July 11, 2011, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in a 5-2 vote to consider the following question:

  1. Whether the Court of Appeals erred in interpreting the Open Meetings Act to allow the minutes of a public meeting not to record “the name of the persons voting against a proposal or abstaining” where the vote was not taken by roll-call and was not unanimous. See OCGA § 50-14-1 (e) (2).

Cardinale filed his principal brief, alleging the Act requires minutes to include the names of individuals voting for or against proposals in non-roll-call votes that are not unanimous. The City responded, arguing the plain language of the statute supports the Court of Appeals’ determination.

According to Cardinale, the Court has also requested an amicus brief from Attorney General Sam Olens on the Open Meetings issue. The Attorney General filed the requested amicus briefon September 28, arguing that the numerical vote did not have to be recorded. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation filed an amicus brief in support of Cardinale.

The case was heard at oral argument on October 4, 2011.

On Monday, February 6, 2012, the Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part in a 4-3 decision (Carley, Benham, Melton dissenting). Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Hunstein explained that the Open Meetings Act requires that minutes include the names of those voting for and against proposals on roll call and non-roll call votes. To find otherwise, according to the majority, would deny information to non-attending members of the public. Thus, the Court of Appeals erred when it dismissed this portion of Cardinale’s complaint. The majority also found that the criminal portion of the complaint was dismissed. Writing in dissent, Justice Melton would have found the clear language of the statute did not require names to be recorded on non-roll call votes.

S11A1435 Robbins et al., d/b/a Supermarket Speciality Products v. Supermarket Equipment Sales,LLC., et al.S11A1583 Smith v. Supermarket Equipment Sales, LLC

This case involves the appeal of an injunction related to mechanical drawings in a case involving the metal coverings for commercial refrigerators. Supermarket Equipment Sales, LLC purchased some of the equipment from Supermarket Equipment Resale, Inc., which closed in 2009. Several former employees of SER created TCD Squared, which also dealt with coverings for refrigerators. SES sued TCD, alleging that the former employees took 1,500 mechanical drawings from SES and used those proprietary information and trade secrets and used them to compete against SES. The trial court issued a temporary injunction prohibiting TCD from using the 1,500 drawings, even though it concluded that the drawings were not trade secrets, and the defendants appealed to the Supreme Court.

TCD and its employees argue that SES lacked standing and the injunction was not appropriate because no trade secrets were taken from SES. SES responded by arguing that the company has standing and the injunction was appropriate to protect the proprietary information.

The Court heard oral argument on November 7, 2011.

On Monday, February 6, 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed in part and reversed in part. Writing for the Court, Justice Benham explained that SES had standing to pursue this case because of the unique facts involved, but that the trial court abused its discretion by granting equitable relief to SES beyond the scope of the Georgia Trade Secrets Act because that Act preempts other laws.

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