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Additional judge suggested for superior court

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Clayton County Superior Court is in dire need of an additional judge, according to the Judicial Council of Georgia.

The council ranked the Clayton court third, in a prioritized list of courts with extra-heavy caseloads. According to the council's statistics, the four Clayton County judges are doing the work of about five judges, and may be in danger of falling behind, with a growing amount of work.

The list was sent to the Governor and the General Assembly in late August, with a recommendation to add a judgeship through legislation in the upcoming session.

The Clayton court, which handles all of the county's felony, criminal cases and serious, civil cases, has "quite a bit of need," said Billie Bolton, spokeswoman for the Judicial Council. The two judicial circuits ranked above Clayton County on the list were the Piedmont Circuit, covering Banks, Barrow and Jefferson counties, and the Flint Circuit, which is Henry County. Both have had a burdensome caseload for several years, Bolton said, and are making repeat appearances on the council's list.

"It really is the metro circuits and the growing suburban circuits, in need of judges," Bolton said. "It's just in growing areas, particularly, the courts are struggling to keep up."

In Clayton County, according Superior Court Chief Judge Matthew Simmons, there has not been a new judge's position created since 1984, and in the last 24 years, the county's population has increased by 81 percent.

"We're really in a bind, now," Simmons said. "It's been a gradual increase. Over the years, the caseload has gone up. If we didn't have four working judges, we'd be in real trouble."

The heavy caseload creates a "bottle neck" in the court, Simmons said, forcing the judges to make some unfortunate prioritization. Simmons has death penalty trials scheduled for January and February, each expected to take a few weeks. During those blocks of times, he said, divorce trials will have to be put off.

"I can't try but one case at a time," Simmons said. "Last week, I had a murder trial that lasted all week, and I had 50-some cases on my calendar. But I could only try that one case. I've got a trial set for next week, and I've got 68 cases now."

The court ranking was determined, in part, by a statistical analysis which attempts to calculate types of cases in hours worked by a superior court judge. Simmons said the statistical ranking doesn't show the true shape of the caseload, though, because it considers all felony cases to be the same, not distinguishing between a felony shoplifting and a murder.

"We've got 49 murder cases pending. For a four-judge circuit, that's a tremendous load," Simmons said.

The county's superior court used to call in retired, senior judges on a temporary basis to handle backlogged cases, using them as a "relief valve," Simmons said, but the practice has ended because of state budget cuts.

Those same budget constraints may mean the recommendation for an additional judge has difficulty getting through the legislature. According to the Judicial Council, a judgeship costs the state an estimated $300,000 to $500,000, annually, depending on the staff hired. There are also additional, county-level costs.

The approval of the council's recommendation with the creation of a judgeship "just depends on the financial health of the state," Bolton said, "and it's entirely up to the legislature, so it depends on them, and it becomes a political thing."

Bolton said in 2007, the legislature followed the Judicial Council's recommendations, creating three new judgeships, but then didn't fund them. "And meanwhile," Bolton said, "your caseload is still growing."

Judge Simmons said he thought it would be a "tough battle" to get an additional judge approved for Clayton County in the next legislative session. He and the three other superior court judges are working on ways to deal with the caseload.

"We're all just trying to do the best we can," he said. "Despite the caseload, we're moving pretty fast. We try to move as fast as we can."