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Update: Appellate Court Jurisdiction

It was just over one year ago that I wrote about the authority of one appellate panel to overrule another panel when the issue is one of jurisdiction. Last week, the Supreme Court of North Carolina issued an opinion in that case that helps to explain the jurisdiction of the appellate courts. The opinion may also offer a preview of the analysis we will see in the pending State v. Biddix appeal, which we previously blogged about here and here.

In State v. Thomsen, the defendant was sentenced under a mandatory minimum statute. The trial court then granted a motion for appropriate relief on its own motion and found that the mandatory sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. Notably, the State did not appeal from that decision and instead filed a petition for writ of certiorari, which a panel of the Court of Appeals granted. Based on precedent, the defendant argued that the Court of Appeals lacked subject matter jurisdiction to review a trial court’s sua sponte grant of appropriate relief. The Court of Appeals disagreed and found that it had already determined the jurisdictional issue by granting the petition for certiorari. Chief Judge McGee dissented and argued that the Court of Appeals did not have jurisdiction to issue the writ of certiorari in the first place.

The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the majority and held that the Court of Appeals did have jurisdiction over the matter. The Court first explained that North Carolina Constitution grants to the General Assembly the authority to define the Court of Appeals’ jurisdiction. In turn, the General Assembly has created a “default rule” that gives the Court of Appeals broad jurisdiction to review a trial court’s decision through the writ of certiorari. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A-32(c). That jurisdictional “default” rule controls unless a more specific statute specifically restricts the Court of Appeals’ jurisdiction. Because there was no statute on point in Thomsen, the default jurisdictional statute gave the Court of Appeals the authority to grant certiorari. Moreover, since section 7A-32(c) “gives the Court of Appeals jurisdiction to issue a writ of certiorari, Rule 21 cannot take that power away.” In other words, the Appellate Rules cannot trump a state statute conferring jurisdiction on the Court of Appeals because the North Carolina Constitution gives the General Assembly—not the Supreme Court—the power to define the Court of Appeals’ jurisdiction.

The Court did not specifically address the issue about one panel overruling another. Instead, it said that the issue was moot. It will take another case to answer that question definitively.

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