New year means new laws to be mastered
by John Cline
February 03, 2013 12:13 AM | 2222 views | 0 0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A few weeks ago, many of us took part in traditional activities associated with the arrival of a new year. Some, in keeping with Southern tradition, ate greens of some description with black-eyed peas.

Many tuned in to see the descent of the Times Square Ball in New York City. Others ventured out to see the Peach Drop at Underground Atlanta.

My friend Wesley claims, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, that he went north to downtown Jasper to see a can of Copenhagen smokeless tobacco drop.

A tradition among many of us in the legal community is to spend some time in the initial days of the new year getting up to speed on the new laws that went into effect on Jan. 1.

As part of my study this year, I learned about new state income tax provisions affecting married couples, manufacturers and farmers.

I read a news item about a new attempt to collect sales tax on online purchases, and another about changes in the law regarding sentencing of those convicted of driving under the influence.

As I read through articles on the new laws, I was surprised to see that very little had been written about the fact that historic changes to the Georgia laws concerning the rules of evidence went into effect on Jan. 1.

These revisions were almost 30 years in the making and will have far-reaching implications on cases tried in Georgia courts.

Evidence can be defined as the many types of information presented to a judge or jury designed to convince them of the truth or falsity of key facts. Evidence often includes testimony of witnesses, documents, photographs, government records, videos and laboratory reports.

The rules of evidence govern what types of information can be properly considered at trial.

In an article published last year in the Georgia State University Law Review entitled “Georgia’s New Evidence Code — An Overview,” Law Professor Paul Milich offered a brief history of the Georgia laws of evidence and an excellent analysis of all of the contours of the new rules.

The following is an even shorter version of how the new law came to pass.

Prior to Jan. 1, 2013, Georgia courts operated under evidentiary laws adopted just a few months before Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th president of the United States.

Some minor additions and changes have been made from time to time, but the bulk of the law has remained unaltered. Not surprisingly, lawyers and judges have struggled through the years to apply 19th-century evidentiary rules to 21st century evidentiary problems.

In 1975, Congress passed the Federal Rules of Evidence, which is a modernized and uniform set of evidentiary rules that is taught in most law schools and is used today in all federal courts.

Thereafter, individual states began updating their evidentiary rules as well, often using the Federal Rules of Evidence as a starting point.

In Georgia, the move to modernize the rules of evidence was started by the State Bar of Georgia in 1985. Since that time, the tireless efforts of proponents of the new code have resulted in something very rare in today’s political climate: a near-consensus among lawyers, judges, state legislators of both political parties, and the governor not only that the old evidentiary laws should be changed, but also as to precisely what the new rules of evidence should be.

In his article, Professor Milich notes that the new evidence code makes dozens of significant changes to the rules of evidence. I will not delve into the specifics of the changes in this space, but it is important to note that these changes will impact both civil and criminal cases heard in all classes of court.

If you happen to observe a court proceeding anytime soon, you can expect to see legal professionals doing their best to master the new rules of evidence and put them into practice correctly.

But, as it can be difficult to teach the proverbial old dog new tricks, you may see some who are struggling to make the transition from the old rules of evidence to the new ones.

Despite these initial struggles, I expect that the short-term burden of learning and implementing the new rules of evidence will be dramatically outweighed by the long-term benefit of having an evidence code that is more in tune with modern life.

John Cline serves as Associate Judge of the Probate Court of Cherokee County. A native of Waleska, he resides in Canton with his wife, Millie, and two daughters. He is a graduate of the University of Georgia School of Law.

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