It could take years for the Georgian judicial system to be carved out of stacked cases where trials have been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, the judges told lawmakers on Wednesday.
“Judges across the state are very aware of the backlog,” Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton said during the budget hearings. “Personally, I want to open legal proceedings as soon as possible, taking into account all the factors that need to be considered.”
Melton estimated that it would take the courts a year or two to handle late cases, but Supreme Court Justice Wade Padgett, president of the Council of Supreme Court Justices, said he thought it would be closer to three years. It’s hard to know how many late trials there are across the country as Georgia doesn’t have a nationwide system of prosecution.
“Whenever we’re allowed to resume, we’ll be busier than ever,” said Padgett.
Under state law, Melton renews a declaration of emergency every 30 days to limit what legal proceedings can be conducted in person.
Late last year, Melton allowed some lawsuits for some time, but said it was necessary to turn them off because of rising infection rates. Even during that time it was difficult to conduct trials, Padgett said, reporting on the jury selection that was taking place in Augusta’s Civic Center and a courtroom that had been physically redesigned to distribute the jurors instead of elbow-to-elbow to sit in the jury box.
“You don’t want to create a weird plexiglass jury tank,” Padgett said.
Melton pointed out that the judges were busy holding some types of hearings and using more online technology than ever before.
“We learned a few things from it,” said Melton. “I think we’ll be using some tools after COVID in the future. I doubt we’ll have the prison transfers you are used to. We have learned that with virtual technology we can achieve these goals in a much safer and more cost-effective manner. “
Melton and Padgett called on lawmakers to restore funding for support services and supplies. According to Padgett, the courts could not even afford a subscription to an online legal research service required to draft opinions. Supreme Court justices also want an additional $ 700,000 to avoid unpaid vacation days that judges have taken and an additional $ 500,000 to pay senior judges to do more work.
Overall, courts, prosecutors and defense lawyers are calling for more money, in some cases to directly offset last year’s cuts, or in other cases to expand services. Judicial authorities want a total of nearly $ 12 million more, an increase of around 4 percent on a budget of over $ 300 million.
Other judicial authorities are not asking for more money. The State Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice both state that they will provide 10% pay increases to their employees by diverting existing funds
“This is going to be a real shot in the arm for the Georgia Department of Justice and the well-deserved men and women who stood on the front lines during this pandemic fighting this invisible enemy,” said Correctional Commissioner Timothy Ward.
The salaries for starting proofreaders would increase from $ 27,936 to $ 30,730.
Juvenile Justice Commissioner Tyrone Oliver said the department will freeze 297 vacancies to fund the pay raise.
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