BY STEPHEN GURR
John Girardeau officially retired from his job as chief judge of Hall County Superior Court in 2005, but in truth it was only a semi-retirement.
Under a state-funded system, Girardeau continued to assist Hall County's four full-time superior court judges two days each week by taking guilty pleas and presiding over bond and probation revocation hearings, uncontested divorces and family violence hearings as a senior judge. He also helped occasionally with the drug court he founded and presided over some criminal trials that were assigned to him prior to his retirement, including a death penalty case that concluded last week.
But as of this month, Girardeau and the state's other 68 senior superior court judges are being forced to hang up their robes, victims of Georgia's across-the-board budget cuts.
Suspending the use of senior judges, who earn a state-funded per diem of about $500 a day, will save the state judicial system about $2 million annually and go toward Gov. Sonny Perdue's mandate of cutting all department budgets by at least 6 percent in the face of a $1.6 billion state deficit.
But it could cost immeasurably more in the administration of justice, court officials say.
"There's constitutional issues and there's due process issues," said Steve Ferrell, court administrator for the Georgia's 9th Judicial District, which includes the Northeastern Circuit of Hall and Dawson counties. Ferrell said by not having the resources of senior judges to fall back on in times of ever-expanding caseloads, getting cases to court may take longer. "We'll pay for it in the long run if we can't get cases heard," he said.
Ferrell added that compared to the estimated costs of full-time judges and special administrative judges, the per diems paid to senior judges were a bargain. The average cost of an elected superior court judge, counting support staff and office expenses, is $380,000 a year. And attorneys specially appointed to conduct mediation hearings can earn from $200 to $400 an hour, Ferrell said.
"Senior judges were a great value," Ferrell said.
Only about half of the state's 68 senior judges worked regularly, Ferrell said.
Girardeau is viewed as a particularly active senior judge, sitting in regularly for the Northeastern Circuit's four superior court judges, who have a combined caseload more suited for seven judges, according to a 2007 study by the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
Of the loss of Girardeau's services, Northeastern Circuit Trial Court Administrator Reggie Forrester said, "It's going to be big."
Reached Friday, Girardeau declined to comment.
Local attorneys, meanwhile, hope the widely respected judge won't be gone from the bench forever.
"He's a great judge and a wonderful asset," said Gainesville attorney Mark Alexander, president of the Gainesville-Northeastern Bar Association. "I'm just hoping whatever shortfall there is can be remedied so that Judge Girardeau can continue to provide that service for Hall County."
Without Girardeau's help, "I think it's going to be a crunch for them," Alexander said. "Just having him available allows the court to move more efficiently."
Brad Morris, director of the Hall County Public Defender's office, called the cuts "a penny wise and a pound foolish."
Noting that Hall County has qualified for a fifth superior court judgeship for some time based on caseloads, Morris said, "in all likelihood it's far more expensive to keep these things in abeyance."
Court officials have relied more lately on specially designated judges from magistrate court to help with the superior court caseload. Magistrate Judges Margaret Gregory and David Burroughs can sit in on superior court hearings by special designation, though they still have their own workloads to attend to.
"We're going to depend on them as much as we can," Forrester said.
Girardeau remains scheduled to preside over a long-pending murder trial in Dawson County at the end of the month. The case, which predates his retirement, is more than four years old and has been to the Georgia Supreme Court on appeal three times. If Girardeau stays on the case, Dawson County, not the state, may have to pay his per diem. Forrester said court officials have been in discussions with the Dawson County Commission chairman about that possibility.
Ferrell noted that counties should not be forced to pay for superior court judges.
"Constitutionally, it's the state's responsibility to pay for these services," Ferrell said. "It's not right to lay this back at the county's feet."
Hall County Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin, a member of the Council of Superior Court Judges of Georgia, said when faced with the governor's mandate, the only thing left for the council to cut was the senior judges. State-mandated salaries for elected judges and their support staff make up 90 percent of the state judicial budget.
"It was a particularly difficult decision," Gosselin said. "It's going to be tough all over the state, but we're especially going to miss having the services of Judge Girardeau available."
Gosselin said the council put the senior judges back in the budget for its 2010 request, but an approval will hinge on the state's economic fortunes and whether revenues increase between now and then.
Gosselin said the effect of losing the senior judges may not be felt immediately, but she believes "eventually it's going to start to impact some timing of when we can hear things."
"It's unfortunate that we've had to take this step," she said.