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Hall County expects new state court judgeship to pay for itself

Approval likely from General Assembly

POSTED: April 7, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS /The Times

Attorney Ashley Bell explains procedure to state court attendees Wednesday afternoon at the Hall County Courthouse. Hall County's state court has seen an increased caseload since 2005.

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For the first 112 years of its existence, Hall County State Court needed one judge to oversee misdemeanor criminal, traffic and civil matters.

But times, with a fast-growing population and ever-expanding court docket, have changed.

By 2003, an additional judgeship was created to handle growth in the court’s caseload.

Now, just five years later, a third judgeship looks likely for approval after Hall County’s local legislative delegation signed off on a bill that could be heard on the House floor today or Friday. The move for an additional judge comes as Hall County’s state court has seen a 47 percent increase in criminal and traffic cases since 2005. According to a study by the Georgia Administrative Office of the Courts, Chief State Court Judge Charles Wynne and Judge B.E. Roberts handle the work of 3.7 judges. Of 22 work days in a month, two-thirds are spent on the bench attending to criminal matters.

"The caseload indicated there was a need for a new state court judge," said Hall County Commission Chairman Tom Oliver, who along with his fellow commissioners pledged to support the new judgeship with some $320,000 in the county budget.

That money will pay the new judge’s $157,000 annual salary, along with salaries for a secretary, law clerk, court reporter and $69,000 in office expenses, including the likely rental of office space in the short term, said Reggie Forrester, trial court administrator for Hall County.

Commissioners have agreed to budget the money in part because they expect the revenues from fees, fines and forfeitures collected in state court should more than cover the cost of the new position.

Oliver said commissioners expect the judgeship to bring in at least 30 percent more than the amount budgeted for the office.

Last year, Hall County’s state court brought in $3.4 million in revenues, which went into the county’s general fund.

"(The judgeship) will bring in more than it cost us; we feel confident of that," Oliver said.

The new position will require partitioning out new offices from existing space at the Hall County Courthouse. Oliver said that capital outlay work, which has not been budgeted, could take place in the next 12 to 18 months. In the meantime, some judges will be sharing courtrooms.

"Having the space available is going to be a true challenge," Oliver said. "We’re going to have to be creative and work with other judges for courtroom space."

Forrester said all judges, from magistrate court to superior court, are willing to let their courtrooms be used when they’re available.

"The judges have made a commitment on every floor to work together," Forrester said. "We’re going to support this judgeship with everything we have."

On Wednesday, state Rep. Doug Collins said the position should be approved by the end of the legislative session. With the support of all members of Hall’s delegation, the process of winning full legislative approval "is a formality," Collins said.

"I see no reason why it won’t be approved," Collins said.

Gov. Sonny Perdue would appoint someone to the judgeship by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. The governor would interview no more than five candidates and no less than two candidates as nominated by Georgia’s Judicial Nominating Commission, a 18-member panel mostly comprised of lawyers from around the state, including former state Attorney General Mike Bowers and current Attorney General Thurbert Baker.

When a new judgeship is created, the nomination commission typically sends out a public notice soliciting names of nominees from members of the state bar and citizens of the county.

After the governor’s initial appointment, the judgeship would be up for election in 2010.



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