The top floor of the Hall County Courthouse had some visitors from out of town this week.
Senior Judges Fred A. Bishop Jr. and K. Dawson Jackson, both former Gwinnett County Superior Court judges, helped Superior Court with cleanup duty, of sorts.
“We bring in a senior judge, if we need them just to assist with the normal day-to-day operation,” Court Administrator Reggie Forrester explained. “If we’re behind, or overloaded, then we might bring in a senior judge to help out for a week or so to help, just to manage our caseload.”
Senior judges are those judges who have been practicing superior court judges through the years, Forrester said.
While they don’t go to work on a regular basis every day, they are still authorized by law to practice as Superior Court judges.
Cases started piling up, Forrester said, and June being a busy vacation time for lawyers, judges and jurors, it was difficult finding the time to get all the pieces together.
“We had a lot of cases that could be closed if we could put some court together. So a decision was made by consensus of the Superior Court Judges to bring in a Senior Judge, and close as many cases as possible in a week, for every Superior Court Judge in this building,” he said.
Monday through Thursday, Bishop and Jackson presided over 36 criminal cases from a calendar of 50, the district attorney’s office reported.
One case was continued, three bench warrants were issued for no-shows and eight cases weren’t seen for lack of time. Of the 36 cases that were closed, 32 concluded with a guilty plea.
Chief Assistant District Attorney Lindsay Burton explained that serious felony cases often take priority on the calendar, continually pushing back others.
“When you look at the types of cases that were tried this week, and that were on that list of 50, none of them were any of the ‘seven deadlies’ cases’ so no sex cases, no child molestation, no kidnapping with injury, armed robbery, things like that,” Burton said.
“When you target a major case, or try to, every single week, cases like theft by shoplifting and forgery and possession of drugs, sometimes get pushed and pushed further down the list,” she added.
In a Monday trial that concluded Tuesday, two co-defendants were found not guilty of forgery in a case involving a counterfeit $50 bill at a Family Dollar on Athens Highway.
“This week really allowed all of our office to clear out some of those cases that may have been pushed to the back in the past to make room for an aggravated child molestation, or a murder or a vehicular homicide. So, without putting any major case first, it allowed us to actually get to all these cases this week,” Burton said.
Funding for the Senior Judge program comes from the state. The judges are paid $512.23 per day for their service, said Steve Ferrell, administrator for the Ninth Judicial Administrative District.
The driving reason for starting the program was assigning judges in conflict of interest cases, Ferrell said.
“One of the driving motivations for this division was a canon of judicial conduct — when a judge has to step aside, he can’t pick who is going to hear the case. So our office is brought in, and at that point, we try to identify a Senior Judge who is available and able to hear the case in a timely fashion,” he said.
And fulfilling the constitutional obligation of a speedy criminal trial has been another positive byproduct of the program, he said.
“One of the big things the Senior Judges bring to the table is they also are key in due process, which is a big part of our constitution,” Ferrell said. “If a judge is tied up with a complex case, or a long, drawn-out case, you can bring in a Senior Judge to keep that calendar moving, which is invaluable.”
Ferrell said the program was in relative peril not long ago, but stands on firmer ground.
“We are very fortunate now. We have a governor who understands what the judges do, and new leadership in the legislature, they’ve been very kind to us and continued to fund our Senior Judge programs,” he said. “They are an incredible value to taxpayers, to have someone that qualified who can work on an as-needed basis.”