Civil courts cases nearly back to pre-pandemic norms

Feb 23, 2023

Antonio Fleetwood and Lakiela Edwards’ long trek to the altar came to an end on Valentine’s Day at the Fulton County Probate Court. That’s where the Atlanta couple finally exchanged vows in a tearful ceremony attended by the bride’s mother as other couples waited in the wings to wed.

“We’ve been trying to get married for about two years,“ the new bride told State Affairs.

The couple’s plans got waylaid by the coronavirus pandemic and had to take a backseat to more pressing court cases such as serious felonies: murders, rapes and armed robbery. The backlog in felony cases drew state and media attention — and federal money. 

Constitutional pressures — most notably, the right to a speedy trial —  have forced Georgia courts to focus first on reducing cases of serious crimes, and they have state and federal financial backing to do so.  

In 2021, Gov. Brian Kemp designated about $96 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to deal with backlogs of court cases. A committee, headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Boggs, oversees applications from courts statewide for the ARPA money and helps decide which courts get the funds. Now in its second year, the committee has awarded grants to 42 of the 50 judicial circuits in Georgia, totaling more than $44 million. Most of that money has gone to reducing the backlog of court cases involving violent felonies.

Tracking the backlog of civil cases isn’t so easy.

“There’s a lot of concern on the civil side because the priority was, of course, going to be given to criminal trials. Folks were afraid they were going to have to wait,” former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton told State Affairs.  Melton guided the state’s court system through the early days of the pandemic. 

“The courts have done a really good job of getting those civil cases in there where they can and I’m not hearing too many complaints about the ability to get civil cases heard across the state,” Melton added.

Still, a full picture of the impact of the pandemic on civil matters like marriage and divorce, business and insurance disputes, slip-and-fall and personal injury and child custody matters is not readily available. 

“We don't have anything statewide that gives us a snapshot of what that looks like,” said Tracy J. BeMent, district court administrator for Georgia’s 10th Judicial District, which handles civil and domestic cases for 21 counties in northeast Georgia. The third-largest district in the state, it received funding from ARPA in the range of $25,000 to $2 million. The money was used to bring in senior judges, usually retired judges, as well as court reporters, clerks, pre-trial release officers and probation officers. The money also was used for local district attorney offices to act as prosecutors.

“Our judges were still working in all our superior courts,” BeMent said. “So they were still handling cases. A lot of them I’ve heard anecdotally made great inroads during the pandemic getting caught up with existing civil and domestic caseload because they had time to not focus as much on criminal [cases] and turn their focus on the civil.”

That said, BeMent noted that “there may be a backlog in some individual counties, but it is not as big as it once was on the civil side.”

The use of Zoom, WebEx and other technology during the pandemic helped courts quickly and efficiently hear and settle cases remotely. 

“I’m hearing a lot of really wonderful stories on the civil side and on domestic matters,” BeMent said. “We've got a lot of judges that are now holding on to that remote hearing as a regular component of their caseload. So that’s really speeding up some of these simple and domestic matters, especially with a lot of our judges who traveled a circuit. Now, depending on the nature of it, they can stay in their office and do a Zoom or WebEx. We're really excited to see what that looks like as that becomes part of the norm.”

Georgia's court system: By the numbers

  • Branches of government in Georgia: 3 (legislative, executive, judicial)
  • Georgia Supreme Court justices: 9
  • Judges: About 1,500 statewide
  • Judicial circuits: 50
  • Administrative districts: 10
  • Types of courts in Georgia: 9 (municipal, magistrate, probate, juvenile, state, superior, appeals, Supreme, Georgia Statewide Business Court)
  • Juvenile, magistrate, probate, superior courts: 159 each (one for each county)
  • State courts: 71
  • Municipal courts: 370

Source: Georgia’s Court System; Administrative Office of the Courts; staff research

In the northwest Georgia counties of Whitfield and Murray, many of the civil cases are being handled through mediation, Superior Court Judge Cindy Morris of the Conasauga Judicial Circuit of Georgia, told State Affairs

“So they were able to keep working through COVID,” Morris said. “We have a very high number of cases settled in mediation. We were busy but I don’t feel like we had that bottleneck like some of the larger circuits have had."

“Probate court is a court for real life because not everyone will be the victim of a crime or commit a crime. Not everyone will be evicted from an apartment or have a small claims case,” Johnson said. “But during a pandemic and anytime, people pass away every day. So there’s things and business matters that come up as a result of that. This is the court for your average citizen because everyone has or will experience loss.”

Deaths caused by the pandemic also caused probate cases to increase.

Johnson said when she first arrived, there was “a four-to-six month delay in getting a response from probate court and now we've gotten that down to 30 days” with the help of county management and extra staff, which include 15 new people.

In addition to dispensing marriage licenses and performing weddings, probate court deals with firearms licenses, estates and wills, and guardianships.

“It was taking several months to get a firearms license,” Johnson recalled. “We've gotten that down to three weeks now.”

Marriage licenses are more instantaneous, the judge noted. But it took a while to process the marriage certificates once probate got them back.

“That kind of held people up from getting insurance switched and handling other financial things. So it was an inconvenience to those citizens. We now have that down to two weeks,” Johnson said.

In Henry County, Superior Court Chief Judge Brian Amero attributes any increase in caseloads now to the county’s growing population versus pandemic backlog. His docket is evenly split between criminal and domestic cases. There are four Superior court judges in the district. 

“I had 160 cases on my trial calendar, starting at the beginning of this term,” Amero told State Affairs. “I think we moved about 74 of those cases in the first two weeks of the term. My docket doesn't feel like it's being stressed too much.” 

Despite the pandemic, court work never completely stopped.

“At the end of the day,  we never stopped working in the courts because there were always emergency matters,” BeMent said. “There were people that had to get married, people that had to get divorced,  people that had to sue each other,  people that got arrested. All those cases were still heard, albeit, a little slower  than we would have liked but the judges were out there.”

See the Edwards-Fleetwood wedding ceremony here.

You can reach Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected]. Joyner is State Affairs’ senior investigative reporter in Georgia. A Georgia transplant, she has lived in the Peach State for nearly 29 years.

Header image:  Antonio Fleetwood and Lakiela Edwards exchange vows on Valentine's Day in Fulton County Probate Court. (Credit: Tammy Joyner)