Augusta, GA
82°
Clear
6:34 am8:34 pm EDT
July 22, 2024 10:14 pm

Local News

Georgia state Supreme Court chief tells lawmakers justice system needs better pay to move cases

iStock

Stanley Dunlap, Georgia Recorder
February 7, 2024

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael P. Boggs told state legislators Wednesday that while courts throughout the state have made strides in reducing the backlog of cases built up during the pandemic, a substantial staffing shortage threatens the ability of courts to move cases through the system.

A packed Capitol House chamber was filled Wednesday with lawmakers attending Boggs’ annual State of the Judiciary address, which detailed how courts are struggling to maintain the staffing levels necessary to conduct court proceedings on time as a result of a lack of financial resources outside of the American Rescue Plan COVID-19 aid.

A number of agencies representing Georgia’s prosecutors, public defenders, and judges have urged lawmakers to pass a budget that provides more competitive pay in the judicial system in order to retain experienced attorneys, judges and other court staff who can expedite cases.

Despite the tens of millions of dollars distributed to Georgia’s judicial system in emergency relief grants, Boggs said that additional state funding is not sufficient to address the substantial need for more court reporters, prosecutors, public defenders, court staff and sheriff’s deputies in Georgia.

Boggs cited high turnover rates, unfilled vacancies across all trial courts and all the way up to the state Supreme Court, as well as a shortage of prosecutors and public defenders. In the last 18 months, 10 law clerks have retired from the Court of Appeals or left for better paying positions, and the Supreme Court has experienced a 57% turnover rate since 2019.

According to the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, there are 42 vacant assistant district attorney positions statewide.

“Just as it is critical to have enough doctors, nurses, and teachers to adequately deliver health care and education services to our citizens, so too must Georgia have enough law enforcement and public safety officers, lawyers, and court staff professionals to effectively and efficiently keep the wheels of justice turning,” Boggs said.

Georgia is also facing a shortage of court reporters and interpreters. The court staffing problems increase the likelihood of missing transcripts and evidence or for court proceedings to be delayed at the last minute.

“While the overall number of certified court reporters in Georgia seems to have gone up in recent years, that apparent growth lags far behind the ever-growing demand our state courts have for those legally necessary to take down every word in a court proceeding to preserve the record,” Boggs said. “In some circuits, courts are resorting to the issuance of emergency judicial permits allowing non-certified court reporters to temporarily stand in for a limited period of up to one year when no other certified reporters are available.”

Boggs commended Georgia’s court officials for their innovative use of grant funds, which helped reduce pending serious violent cases by 11% in the state over the past year. During the peak of the pandemic in 2021, serious violent crime backlogs in Georgia increased by an average of 24%, while some judicial circuits reported increases of more than 100%.

The Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit in Columbus held more jury trials within the first eight months of 2022 than before the pandemic, according to Boggs. One of the creative solutions used in Columbus, Boggs noted, was using the federal stimulus dollars to convert the civic center into a venue for jury selection and trials, in addition to hiring a dozen employees, including assistant district attorneys, court clerks and deputies.

Public defenders, prosecutors go before budget committee

The Georgia Public Defender Council has first-hand knowledge of the demand for more attorneys representing defendants who cannot afford legal representation.

At a Senate budget hearing held on Wednesday, public defender officials stated that they intend to use leftover American Rescue Plan money to cover a portion of an additional $4 million needed as a growing number of racketeering and conspiracy cases are being brought across the state.

According to Peter Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, options are being considered on how to increase prosecutors’ salaries, including possibly taking money from unfilled positions.

“I know your public defender counterparts are starting the process of sometimes caving their vacant positions in order to increase starting pay,” Senate chief budget writer Blake Tillery, a Vidalia attorney, said Wednesday.

The prosecutor attorneys’ association has been pushing to increase the starting pay for new assistant district attorneys up from $58,250 to $71,000.

“We’re exploring a whole bunch of different options because I think that’s the direction that we have to take,” Skandalakis said.

Until government compensation improves, more attorneys will consider working in private practice to be too financially advantageous to pass up, according to the state’s chief justice.

“Today’s rate of pay is not as competitive as the salaries offered by the courts in the ’80s and ’90s, and this compensation landscape adds another layer of difficulty to our efforts to attract and retain top-tier talent,” Boggs said. “And we must reckon with the fact that this trend depletes our pool of seasoned legal professionals and necessitates time-consuming recruitment and training efforts for their replacements.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.