Georgia courts clogged by pandemic brace for state budget squeeze

    Flint Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Brian Amero said it's an all hands on deck moment for superior courts dealing with a backlog of cases and looming budget cuts. Amero expressed his concerns Monday to a Senate budget subcommittee as court agencies presented budgets with 14% reductions. Screengrab from Senate media services

    The wheels of justice could turn even more slowly in Georgia soon, as state budget cuts could mean fewer prosecutors and public defenders and lengthy furloughs for judges, even as a logjam of cases continues to pile up while in-person hearings are on hold due to coronavirus-containment restrictions.

    People are spending months in jail waiting for their day in court and other proceedings are delayed until at least June 12 when Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton’s March emergency order that largely shut down the state’s judicial system is set to expire.

    Some Georgia court administrators told members of a Senate budget subcommittee Monday that the state-mandated 14% cut to their 2021 spending plan will stress an already backlogged case system.

    Trimming millions of dollars from the state budget for Superior Courts might cost the system 70 law clerk positions and push judges and their staffs to take lengthy furloughs. 

    Civil jury trials are stacking up and likely facing delays once courtrooms reopen, said Flint Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Brian Amero, who serves as president of the Council of Superior Court Judges of Georgia.

    “We are at an all hands-on deck moment,” he said. “We have had people sitting in jail for months, waiting for trial, thousands of criminal defendants, and we need to provide them with what they are entitled to.”

    Last week, lawmakers started holding online committee meetings with limited in-person attendance as department officials detailed the pain of $3.5 billion in cuts from a budget that stood at $28.1 billion when it passed the House in March. 

    Lawmakers expect the budget debate to intensify once the legislative session resumes at the Capitol in as soon as 10 days after a two-month break because of worries about the spread of the novel coronavirus, including confirmed cases among its 236 members. 

    The 14% across-the-board spending reduction mandate comes after Gov. Brian Kemp called for a 6% cut last summer in anticipation of an economic downturn.

    “We may have to think outside of the box a little bit,” said Sen. William Ligon, chairman of the judicial subcommittee and Brunswick Republican.

    The state’s obligation to provide legal counsel for people charged with crimes is also threatened by the budget squeeze.

    The Georgia Public Defender Council wants lawmakers to spare it from proposed salary cuts or run the risk of the criminal justice system crashing, executive director Omotayo Alli said.

    It would require at least 24 furlough days in the budget year that starts July 1 to fulfill the 14% reduction. Public defenders, who typically earn $50,000 to $65,000, are likely going to look for another job if they are forced to take less pay for more work, Alli said.

    “Every single penny that you take from us as public defenders is going to have a negative multiplier effect on the backend with prolonged litigation, more children in juvenile court. We have the obligation to be in our communities,” she said.

    Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta Democrat and lawyer, said legislators must consider the potential legal ramifications if the state doesn’t provide enough resources for public defenders.

    “I think what is important for us to understand is that if we’re unable to deliver a certain kind of constitutional minimums when it comes to effective assistance of counsel, that there can be challenges filed in federal court,” she said during the committee meeting.

    The Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia stands to lose 49 assistant district attorneys under a straight 14% cut, but instead hopes to get approval to increase available furlough days to above 30 for the district attorney program in order to save jobs, said Peter Skandalakis, the council’s executive director.

    For the Cordele judicial circuit and others that rely completely on state funding, losing even one prosecutor can hurt, Skandalakis said.

    “You have seven state-paid personnel, prosecutors who must prosecute everything from a speeding citation to a multiple count homicide case,” he said. 

    Stanley Dunlap
    Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.