June 20, 2013 Marietta - Melissa Rife (center), assistant solicitor general, calls one of misdemeanor defendants in the audience during a criminal arraignment at Cobb County State Court in Marietta on Thursday, June 20, 2013. State Court caseloads have plummeted in many metro Atlanta counties since 2010 - a result of a filing fee hike that caused many civil cases to migrate to Magistrate Court, where jurisdiction overlaps but filing fees are cheaper. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Hyosub Shin
Photo: Hyosub Shin

As State Court cases fall, questions fly over number of judges

When State Court caseloads grow, the courts clamor for more judges and staffers to handle them. But what happens when caseloads shrink?

Nothing, according to an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Across Georgia, the 70 counties that have instituted and funded their own State Courts have seen civil caseloads fall by an average of 50 percent since 2010, according to the Council of State Court Judges of Georgia.

The drop-off occurred after state lawmakers that year voted to hike filing fees for State Court by $125. The higher fees, about $200, spurred many people to seek resolution of less complex civil disputes in Magistrate Court, which has overlapping jurisdiction with State Court and where filing fees are substantially lower at about $50.

Yet counties — and taxpayers — are still bankrolling just as many State Court judges with average salaries of about $152,000 (not to mention their attendant staffers of bailiffs, judicial assistants, deputies and court reporters) as they were before. And court officials in five metro Atlanta counties — Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett — said they are not considering cutbacks because their judges still have plenty to do.

State Court judgeships are created by local legislation and are designed to help handle civil cases and misdemeanor criminal cases. Judges serve a four-year term and are elected in a countywide nonpartisan election. Vacancies that occur between election years are filled by appointment of the governor.

State Court judges say the caseload numbers don’t tell the whole story and insist they are as busy as ever. The types of cases that migrated to Magistrate Court after the filing fees increased were landlord-tenant disputes and small claims. Those kinds of civil cases are simpler to resolve and don’t take up much time in court.

Meanwhile, complex civil cases such as personal injury, medical malpractice or wrongful death — cases that require discovery to be filed, witnesses to be deposed, and hearings and trials to be held — remain on the State Court judges’ calendars.

“It is a dramatic shift (of civil cases),” said Melanie Wilson, clerk of State Court for DeKalb County. “But from our point of view, we’re still seeing the same amount of work.”

Another important consideration, Wilson said, is that the number of criminal cases in State Court has remained about the same. And soon it’s likely to grow by as much as 25 percent.

Here’s why: The State Courts handle misdemeanor crimes (and sometimes traffic cases), while Superior Court has jurisdiction over felonies. But criminal justice reform legislation passed this year raised the dollar-amount threshold for many felony property crimes. As a result, small-time burglaries, shoplifting charges, forgeries and other thefts that formerly would have been considered felonies for Superior Court will now be treated as misdemeanors in State Court.

WHO’S COMPLAINING?

Some say there’s an inherent conflict of interest in asking judges if they have enough work to justify their own jobs. And attorneys who practice in front of those judges are unlikely to raise concerns, said Cobb County Magistrate Court Judge Frank Cox.

In Cobb County, 12 State Court judges handle traffic cases in addition to civil and misdemeanor criminal cases.

Their civil caseload has dropped 84 percent since 2009, and the traffic caseload has dwindled 38 percent. Criminal cases are up 4 percent.

Last year, Cox wrote a letter to county leaders recommending that a State Court judgeship in Cobb be left vacant after a judge was elevated to the Superior Court bench.

Cox pointed out that State Court traffic cases were falling, and questioned whether State Court judges had enough work to do.

Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee declined to intervene, saying he’d leave the decision to the governor and the General Assembly.

Gov. Nathan Deal appointed a replacement shortly thereafter.

“I was a pariah at the State Court after I made those comments,” Cox said. “I was just pointing out what I thought would be a logical place to quit spending money where it didn’t need to be spent.”

The chief State Court judge in Cobb, Toby Prodgers, said he and his colleagues on the bench recently began handling domestic criminal cases that used to be heard in Magistrate Court. And he expects traffic cases to rise because 30 additional Georgia State Patrol officers have been assigned to the county.

Prodgers insists the replacement judgeship was needed. “It was rather critical that it be filled,” he said.

Linda Shippey, who retired in June 2012 as a State Court judicial administrative assistant after more than 20 years of service in Cobb, disagrees. Shippey said the county could probably make do with “two, if not three” fewer State Court judges in each of its two divisions.

“Anyone who works closely in the courthouse, especially judges’ staff, realize that’s the case,” Shippey said. “If the citizens knew what went on, they should be really irate. And if it’s like this locally, think what it’s like statewide.”

NOT SO FAST

State Rep. Wendell Willard, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, said it’s possible to eliminate a State Court judgeship. But the General Assembly has never received such a request to his recollection — probably because Georgia’s population has been steadily growing for so long that there wasn’t much reason to consider it, Willard said.

Even if they wanted to, the State Courts of Georgia have not developed a good system for measuring caseloads, according to DeKalb County Chief Magistrate Judge Wayne M. Purdom. Adding new judges is such an ad hoc process that workload assessments aren’t always done even when new judgeships are added, much less when the positions become vacant or on a regular basis, he said.

Purdom, who is secretary and past president of the Council of State Court Judges of Georgia, said any decision to eliminate a judge would have to be made very carefully, because falling caseloads can easily go back up.

“It’s still a little early to tell whether this is any sort of thing that’s permanent,” Purdom said. “It takes a long time to gear up a court. And if you close one down, to reopen it would not be easy.”

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