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Hall court plans to move at ‘fast pace’ with $1 million award to address case backlog
Courtrooms in Hall County Superior Court, pictured in September 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers

Hall County’s Court Administrator Jason Stephenson said court officials are hoping to set a “fast pace” for 2022 to fix its backlog of cases, especially with an additional $1 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The Judicial Council of Georgia announced the awards Dec. 22 as part of the $110 million allocated by Gov. Brian Kemp to address the court backlog created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The council said 26 judicial circuits, including Hall and Dawson counties’ Northeastern Judicial Circuit, received nearly $25 million in total funding.

The Northeastern Judicial Circuit received its total request of $1,081,610, according to the judicial council.

“We knew that taking care of this backlog would take more resources than we had … The judges are thrilled to receive the additional support and hopeful it will offer an opportunity to build some additional capacity, from judges to interpreters, to prosecutors (and) defense attorneys,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson did not have any specific metrics for the court’s goals in reducing the backlog this year.

In its application, the judicial circuit said there were more than 1,000 unindicted cases in Hall County as of Oct. 1.

Stephenson said the funds are immediately available. Once the funds are spent, the county can submit for reimbursement.

The courts are looking to hire eight full-time positions that will span the district attorney’s office, the clerks’ office, court administration and pretrial services.

“Some of those positions will be posted as soon as next week for applications,” Stephenson said.

The court’s application for funding included three positions for the district attorney’s office: an assistant district attorney, an investigator and an administrative assistant. The funding for those three positions was just short of $300,000.

One of the biggest changes was expediting the plan to bring on a fourth Juvenile Court judge who will work on some Superior Court cases in the interim.

The fourth judge will handle civil and domestic cases in Superior Court so that the five Superior Court judges can handle the more serious criminal cases.

After this year, that judge will likely split time between Juvenile and Superior Courts.

Stephenson said the salary for the judge is $165,393. With retirement and benefits, the total compensation is $215,541.

Stephenson said the legal notice for the judgeship was set to appear in The Times this week.

The ad for applications will run for three months, and the Superior Court judges are expected to make the appointment in mid-March, Stephenson said.

According to the Hall County government’s website, a Juvenile Court judge must be “at least 30 years of age, a citizen of the state for at least three years, and have practiced law for at least five years.”

Of the $110 million allocated, $96 million was for the courts and prosecutors with the rest going to the Georgia Public Defender Council. The Northeastern Judicial Circuit public defenders’ office also received funding to hire another public defender.

Northeastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender Brad Morris was not immediately available to discuss the matter Tuesday, Jan. 4.

While Stephenson said the court hopes to move at a fast pace through this backlog, the court is  facing a resurgence of COVID cases in the community.

Northeast Georgia Health System reported 207 confirmed COVID-positive patients across its facilities Tuesday, with 108 patients at the Gainesville hospital.

Chief Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin extended her order regarding COVID safety measures, which was set to expire at the end of the year, to Feb. 28.

The order strongly encouraged virtual hearings when possible and mandated face coverings in all public spaces.

There are trials planned in both State and Superior courts Monday, Jan. 10. Stephenson said they plan to proceed with the trials at this time but are monitoring the situation closely.