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Georgia courts predict avalanche of cases while state cuts budgets

Sen. William Ligon, Jr. , R-Brunswick, chairman of the Senate judicial budget subcommittee. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Sen. William Ligon, Jr. , R-Brunswick, chairman of the Senate judicial budget subcommittee. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Court officials warned Monday of a huge backlog of cases built up by the coronavirus shutdown hitting at a time when they will be forced to furlough and lay off staff to meet the state’s requirement to cut spending.

Indictments have been delayed, defendants have spent months in jail awaiting trial and court cases have been postponed during the pandemic.

“We are at an all-hands-on-deck moment,” said Brian Amero, the chief judge of the Flint Judicial Circuit in Henry County and president of the Council of Superior Court Judges. “The extent to which this avalanche of work is about to hit superior court judges cannot be overstated.”

Amero and other court officials painted lawmakers a picture of a judicial system that will be shorthanded and force those who keep their jobs — including judges — to dig out of case backlogs while earning less money.

Omotayo B. Alli, the executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Council, told lawmakers that if they insist on weeks of furloughs for her staff, “The criminal justice system is going to crash.”

Senate budget writers have heard from agency directors during the past week about the impact of mandated, across-the-board budget cuts. The 2020 legislative session was suspended in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, and lawmakers will restart it this month.

The leaders of the House and Senate budget committees and the Office of Planning and Budget sent letters to state agencies May 1 requesting plans to cut spending in the upcoming fiscal year by 14% — or more than $3.5 billion — because of the coronavirus recession.

A report on state tax collections for April that came out a few days later showed why. They were down $1 billion from April 2019 as businesses shut down and unemployment hit record levels.

Under budget plans submitted last month, more than 1,000 filled jobs would be eliminated and tens of thousands of state employees would be furloughed.

Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, the chairman of the Senate judicial budget subcommittee, started Monday's hearing with court officials by reminding them of the state of the economy. He said not every agency may wind up having to cut 14%, but that every agency, from the Supreme Court to the Department of Education, had to suggest spending cuts.

“The governor’s office is not exempt from this 14% reduction proposal, nor is the legislative branch, nor is any executive branch agency, and the judicial branch is not either,” Ligon said.

Sara Doyle, the presiding judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals, set the tone by telling lawmakers that to meet the proposed cuts, the court would have to let go of 17 or 18 staff members and furlough others 22 days in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

“The end result is an appellate court that can’t fully function or won’t fully function,” she said.

“Now more than ever, this country and this state need fully functioning courts at all levels and not one working with half the necessary staff on a shortened work year,” she said. “While the cuts being requested are a terrible burden on my court’s ability to function and to those who will lose their livelihood, the impact on the state and the people who live and do business here is much more profound if its court system is crippled.”

Pete Skandalakis, the director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said district attorney offices would have to take furloughs and eliminate the jobs of 49 assistant district attorneys to meet the requirements. That would be especially tough for district attorneys in rural areas where counties contribute little to help fund prosecutors.

Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, a member of the subcommittee, said that will add to the backlog of criminal cases.

“If this is what we accepted and passed, as of July 1, you would have 49 assistant district attorneys that would be cut off, period, and told to pack their stuff and go,” she said.

Superior court judges would have to cut the jobs of $42,000-a-year law clerks at a time when they are expecting the “avalanche” of cases. Civil lawsuit cases would be delayed because criminal cases will take precedent. Even picking juries will be more difficult because some potential jurors won’t want to come to the courthouse, fearing infection.

“Superior court judges, if you furlough them, that will just be a word on paper,” Amero said. “We will not be working less, we will be working more.”

Much of the regular business of the state’s court system has been shut down since March 14, when Chief Justice Harold Melton declared a state of judicial emergency because of the pandemic. That order has since been extended to June 12, meaning no criminal trials have been held or grand juries convened in the past 2 1/2 months.

For the second time in a week, senators talked about forcing state employees to take “temporary” pay cuts, rather than furloughs. Under furloughs, staffers take days off without pay. If their pay is cut, they will earn less but have to work the same number of hours.

Last week, Republican senators raised the possibility of cutting pay for pre-kindergarten teachers rather than furloughing them, but some colleagues quickly rejected the idea.

"That is not going to happen," said Sen. P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville. "Our teachers, first responders and law enforcement personnel are vital to our state, and we will not ask them to do the same amount of work for less pay."

However, that didn’t seem to be the unanimous sentiment Monday when it came to the judiciary.

Melton said the justices on his court — who received a base salary of about $176,000 last year — would “decline” 20 days of pay during the next fiscal year to cut costs.

Alli asked lawmakers to spare her agency from budget cuts, something that is highly unlikely.

“We have cut everything we can in-house,” she said, adding that staff may have to take at least 24 furlough days next year. With pay already low for her defense lawyers, she said, some staff might leave for new, more lucrative jobs.

Furloughs won’t necessarily mean those attorneys will take days off, she said. “We have an ethical obligation, we have a moral obligation to do the work and to make sure we provide effective representation,” she said.

Afterward, Jordan, the subcommittee member, tweeted, “While we are in the middle of a state budget crisis, we have to cut in ways that won’t compromise the ability of our courts, prosecutors, and public defenders to provide essential services that safeguard the constitutional rights of Georgians all across this state.”