Judicial circuits get $15 million more to pare down big case backlogs

Nathan Deal Judicial Center

Nathan Deal Judicial Center in Atlanta (Credit: Stephen Dillard)

Georgia courts are getting a $15 million injection to help combat case backlogs accumulated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The money will be used to update courtrooms with new audio-visual equipment, cameras, recording devices and other technology.

Nearly half of Georgia’s 50 judicial circuits are getting the new round of money, the second and final round of federal American Rescue Act (ARPA) grants slated to be distributed this year. Two of the 24 circuits awarded grants – Flint and Pataula – are first-time recipients. The rest of the money is going to circuits that applied and were approved for more money. 

What’s happening

“The bulk of this round of distributions is to modernize courtrooms and things like that,”  Bruce Shaw, a spokesman for the Judicial Council of Georgia/Administrative Office of the Courts, told State Affairs.

For example, according to their backlog response plans, 21 circuits plan to use the money to add newer audio-visual equipment. Approved as a new eligible expenditure by the committee starting this award cycle, over $12 million was requested and awarded to update audio-visual equipment.

Requests also included money for temporary personnel such as senior judges, judges to serve by designation, court clerks, prosecutors, security, investigators, victim support staff and court reporters. There were also requests for supplies, personnel education and training as well as money to rent temporary space to hold court.

“We look forward to the support and efficiencies the audio-visual equipment modernization will provide to move cases faster and without technical delays,” said Supreme Court of Georgia Chief Justice Michael Boggs, chairman of the Judicial Committee.

Why It Matters

Between March 2020 and June 2021, Georgia’s judiciary system operated under a statewide Judicial Emergency Order that placed limits on court operations to protect the health and safety of people working or coming into court during the pandemic. That led to a backlog of criminal and civil cases, especially those requiring jury trials to resolve.

In October 2021, Gov. Brian Kemp allocated $110 million in ARPA money to the state’s judicial branch to deal with the backlog, especially serious violent felonies.

The Judicial Council is administering $96 million of that money to eligible courts, prosecutors and related agencies. The remaining $14 million in ARPA money went to the Georgia Public Defender Council for grants to public defenders.

With this latest round of awards, 45 of Georgia’s 50 judicial circuits will have received grants since the program began on Jan.  1 , 2022.

Challenges still persist. In addition to the backlog of cases, Boggs said there’s a shortage of attorneys during his inaugural State of the Judiciary address in March. And some courts are in need of court reporters.

In addition to dealing with serious felony cases, COVID and court backlogs tied up many civil cases. For example, Atlantans Antonio Fleetwood’s and Lakiela Edwards’ wedding plans were on hold for nearly two years. The couple finally tied the knot in a special Valentine’s Day ceremony at the Fulton County Probate Court. 

How successful has the ARPA program been in helping reduce the backlog in Georgia’s 50 judicial circuits? That’s hard to say. There is no statewide clearinghouse, Shaw said, that would give a clear picture of the progress. Or lack of it. 

“It’s going to be different in each circuit,” he said. “So a statewide average would be difficult to come by right now.”

State Affairs checked in with Georgia’s 10th Judicial District, which handles civil and domestic cases for 21 counties in northeast Georgia. It has seven circuits and is the third-largest district in the state. 

In the first few months of this year, the Augusta Judicial Circuit, the 10th District’s largest circuit, has seen its pending serious violent felonies drop by 37%, District Administrator Tracy J. BeMent told State Affairs.

Alcovy, another circuit in his district, “has done extremely well in prioritizing serious, violent felony trials this past year and has worked down their [cases] quite a bit,” BeMent said. 

As of last August, the latest data available, “Alcovy had cleared out 54 serious felonies and was on track to complete almost 49 trial weeks for 2022 amongst their five judges,” Bement added. 

In the Toombs circuit, clearance rates are low but they’re prioritizing backlog cases, BeMent said. The Western circuit in Athens continues to have a backlog “as they have a number of cases that have yet to be indicted,” he said.

What’s Next?

More work remains to be done.

“The challenge continues to be making sure we have appropriate staff and that we’re fully staffed and that that staff is trained and ready to go,” BeMent said. 

The ARPA money has helped add more personnel but it takes time for them to get up to speed, he noted. 

So far, the district has received about $8 million in ARPA money, BeMent said, with another $3 million coming from this latest round of ARPA distributions.

Meanwhile, former President Jimmy Carter recognized The Judicial Council/AOC’s  50th anniversary this year in a Jan. 25 letter. The council was formed while Carter was Georgia governor. The ailing 39th president entered hospice on Feb.  17.

“Now the challenge is considering what is needed from all of you for the next 50 years,” Carter, 98,  said in the letter. “What do future generations of judges, lawyers and citizenry need from their judicial branch? What does improving justice look like in the next decade? These are no small questions, but ones I know you will meet with the same spirit that has guided you through the past half-century.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected].

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Top image: Inside the Nathan Deal Judicial Center in Atlanta (Credit: Judge Stephen Dillard)