We hear a lot in the news about the impact of the recession on local governments and our school systems. Budget cuts at the state and local levels have led to furloughs, layoffs and reduction of government services throughout our communities. But less attention has been given to our judicial system, despite undergoing the same belt-tightening measures.
Mark Alexander, a partner and personal injury attorney with the Stewart, Melvin & Frost law firm in Gainesville, Ga., and Hall County Superior Court Judge and president of the Georgia Council of Superior Court Judges Kathy Gosselin will discuss how the recession has impacted our local court system.
Question: Mark, from your side of the court bench, what is your perspective on how our local courts are impacted by the recession?
Mark: It has had a definite impact. Like our local governments, the judges and court staff working under difficult budget restraints.
Question: Judge Gosselin, your perspectives at the local level?
Judge Gosselin: Before the recession hit, our local court system was first in line for a new judge, based upon our growth. But that position has been on hold for past two years. Today, we are dealing with an expanding caseload with the same number of judges and staff. In addition, we are faced with budget cuts just like the rest of our county government.
Statewide, the budget cuts have reduced the number of senior judges. This has produced added pressure on caseloads, particularly in dealing with lengthy death-penalty cases or situations involving judge recusals – fewer judges to handle the workload. There is tremendous pressure on our judicial system. Slows down the process and backs up our caseload.
Furlough days have backed up trial court calendar, for example. On the civil side, if you have a domestic case such as a custody matter, it may be months before it can be scheduled. Still, we have been very fortunate in Hall County. We’re getting by, while in some parts of the state (like South Georgia); they have taken extreme measures such as shutting down all civil cases.
Question: How are we dealing with these pressures?
Judge Gosselin: Judges and staff are working much harder to make sure people have access to the court system. We are very conscious of fact that cases, especially on criminal side, still need to be processed as efficiently as possible.
Question: How is morale among the court staff?
Judge Gosselin: It’s difficult, but everyone working together to get through this and they have all displayed a positive, can-do attitude. One concern is that we’ve had to cut back on staff training in order to save money.
Question: In the midst of crisis, we often find opportunities. And we understand that one positive trend on the rise in our court system is the emergence of specialized courts, such as Drug Court, that are beginning to help stop the cycle of repeat offenders – and hopefully lessen the pressure on our courts. Could you tell us more about this?
Judge Gosselin: Drug Court has been around the longest. It has a track record demonstrating great success. Also have accountability courts – DUI courts and mental health courts. It gives people a chance to turn their lives around and help them with such things as housing, vocational rehab, getting a job, and medications.
Question: As the president of the Georgia Council of Superior Court Judges, you have been particularly instrumental in pushing for legislation to enable more Mental Health Courts around the state. Would you tell us a little bit more about this?
Judge Gosselin: I’ve been working with Mental Health Court in our local system for about seven years. We were one of the first in the state and continue to lead this effort. It is a team approach with prosecutors, defense attorneys, treatment specialists, probation and jail officials.
Mental Health Court accepts offenders whom we believe committed a misdemeanor or felony primarily due to their severe mental illness. It helps them develop structured plan to turn their lives around and hopefully keep them from ever returning to the court system. Locally, we have our largest class (13) graduating in September. It is very exciting and rewarding.
Question: You are currently serving as President of the Georgia Council of Superior Court Judges. Tell us about issues that you’re focusing on at the state level.
Judge Gosselin: As I already mentioned, we are working on legislation to enable more Mental Health Courts around the state with special grants. There are currently 10 of these specialized Mental Health Courts statewide and we’d like to see many more. We are dealing with issue of senior judges cut-backs. I personally spend time at Legislature providing information and responding to any issues.