Security issues, worker shortages still plague state courts, Chief Justice Boggs tells lawmakers

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Boggs greets lawmakers after his State of the Judiciary address on Feb. 7, 2024. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

Georgia courts have cut their backlog of violent felony cases significantly with the help of federal pandemic aid, but ongoing personnel shortages and courtroom security concerns remain challenges, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Boggs told state lawmakers Wednesday in his State of the Judiciary address.

Georgia’s 50 judicial circuits are reporting an average 11% drop in pending serious violent felony cases, a significant shift from the peak of the pandemic when the circuit courts saw an average 24% rise in violent felony cases; some saw a 100% increase.

Grants from the American Rescue Plan Act enabled 46 of the judicial circuits to hire temporary judges, staff and other personnel, update courtroom technology, rent larger venues, and get more resources to help reduce the case backlog.

Some 159 superior courts fall in the 50 judicial circuits, each of which is comprised of one to eight counties.

“This is significant progress — particularly given the growth of other ongoing and interwoven challenges affecting our judges’ efforts to move dockets,” said Boggs, who urged lawmakers to consider HB 947, sponsored by Elberton Republican Rep. Rob Leverett, which seeks to increase the pay of superior court judges across the state.

Boggs cited two circuit courts that found creative ways to use their federal pandemic grants to cut their  backlogs.

The Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit in Columbus used the Columbus Ice Rink and civic center for jury selection and trial venues. The circuit added more than a dozen new employees, including three assistant district attorneys, two superior court clerks, part-time and full-time investigators, and three deputies. As a result, the circuit held more jury trials in the first eight months of 2022 than its pre-pandemic capacity. 

Between 2019 and 2021, serious violent felony cases in the Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit in DeKalb County rose by 2,220 cases. The federal grants, however, helped the circuit significantly cut its caseload and increase the number of trials. The circuit held 77 trials in 2022. The circuit created a separate division within its Superior Court to handle backlog cases.

Even with such creativity and federal help, Boggs said the state judicial system remains challenged to recruit and keep a wide array of workers. This problem stretches beyond court backlogs. Georgians are affected by shortages in the legal field, he said. Seven Georgia counties — all rural – have no licensed attorneys, Boggs noted.

“While we have more than 34,000 active, licensed attorneys in the Peach State, please recognize the severe deficit of lawyers we have, especially outside of the Atlanta metro area,” said the chief justice. “Many of us chuckle at the occasional lawyer joke. But when you really need a lawyer, not having one can be deadly serious.”

Additionally, courts across Georgia need more court reporters, prosecutors and public defenders, court staff and  sheriff’s deputies. Even the state Supreme Court has had a staff attorney turnover rate of 57% since January 2019,  he noted.

Inadequate pay is leading to more “legal deserts” in many parts of the state, Boggs said.

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Boggs delivered his annual State of the Judiciary address to legislators on Feb. 7, 2024 in the House chamber. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

The Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, which provides training and support to hundreds of elected and appointed prosecutors statewide, reported at the start of this year there were 41 assistant district attorney vacancies statewide. Eight of the state's 50 circuits have assistant district attorney vacancy rates of 25% or more, Boggs said. 

“You wouldn’t be surprised that many of these circuits are in rural areas,” Boggs said. “And, you don’t have to be a lawyer to know that judges alone can’t move a criminal case docket without prosecutors.”

Boggs also expressed concern over the dearth of attorneys available to represent indigent defendants in civil cases. Although many  low-income people receive publicly funded legal representation in criminal cases, “civil litigants are often on their own,” he said. “Instead, where civil litigants can’t afford a lawyer, the burden of representation falls to the litigant to represent themselves or rely on a far-too-small and under-resourced patchwork of volunteers or organizations who take cases for little or no fee.”

He noted that the Georgia Legal Services, which provides free legal help in rural areas, has more than a dozen openings in Albany, Valdosta, Columbus, Dalton, Macon, Savannah, and in its Piedmont regional office. “And while there are numerous attorneys in and surrounding Atlanta willing to step up, there is still a need for locally based lawyers in those farther outlying cities and towns,” said Boggs. “Without them, it is more difficult to provide civil legal services to survivors of domestic violence, those in desperate need of housing, and other law-abiding people with critical legal needs.”

Boggs also urged lawmakers to consider removing “unnecessary barriers to practicing law”  and praised  a change in Georgia  law that now allows spouses of active-duty military personnel to get provisional licenses.

Boggs also voiced concern over growing threats to judges across the nation, citing “several alarming attacks” on U.S. judges over the last few years, including a retired Wisconsin judge who was murdered in his home by a defendant he had sentenced to prison in 2022, and a Maryland judge murdered outside his home by a litigant in a child custody dispute last year.

“For our legal system to function properly, judges must be able to administer justice free from threats and violence,” said Boggs. “They need to know that court staff and family members are safe. The public needs to know that the people overseeing their cases do so professionally, objectively, unhindered by intimidation, and free from reprisal. In short, for the rule of law to mean anything — the very bedrock of our society — judges, court staff, their families, and the public must be protected.” 

Noting that the Judicial Council of Georgia’s Standing Committee on Judicial Security, established a year ago, is working to identify steps to protect the safety and security of Georgia’s judiciary, Boggs asked lawmakers to consider “legislation to require state and local governments to keep confidential the personal identifying information of judges — a proposal already passed or in the works in 31 other states and a protection that could easily be expanded to cover other elected officials.”

Gov. Brian Kemp and the House have proposed spending $25 million on the Georgia Judicial Council in 2024, a $1.5 million increase over fiscal year 2023. The Senate is currently reviewing the amended fiscal year 2024 budget proposals of the governor and the House.

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