Now, due to the state's budget crisis, the work of our courts is being impaired, and stands to be hampered even further. Hall County (Gainesville) has closed its courts for one day a month rather than lay off 44 employees. And the courts in Brunswick on the Georgia coast have had to cancel civil jury trials for six months. Those examples could be just the tip of the iceberg if deep cuts are made in the budget for the state's judicial system by the legislature this spring.
The budget proposal being considered by the state House would cut the state Supreme Court's budget by $498,000, or 6.2 percent. That would come hard on the heels of cuts totaling 14.4 percent during fiscal years 2009-10. Chief Justice Carol Hunstein told the Marietta Daily Journal editorial board last week that "We think we can make that (proposed 6.2 percent cut), but we can't make anything more than that."
"I am trying to make sure the judicial branch can still meet its constitutional duty to provide access to the court system in a reasonably efficient manner," she added.
The budget for the State Judicial Council, meanwhile, is proposed to be cut 8 percent. Keep in mind, too, that even though the state's court system touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of Georgians each year, it does so at a bargain price - a cost of less than 1 percent of the state's overall budget.
Yet the slowdown in funding is exacting a price of its own, as noted above and also in a Wall Street Journal reported last fall in a story headlined, "Cases Pile Up in Georgia Courts."
"The wheels of justice in Georgia are grinding more slowly every day," it wrote. "Georgia's situation appears particularly severe. Because schedules and staffing have been reduced so aggressively, judges and attorneys say, the caseload appears to be backing up more quickly than in other states."
Georgia's Supreme Court justices - and many other court officials around the state - have been taking furlough days for budgetary reasons.
"(But) every day that prosecutors take a furlough day, it backs up 500 criminal cases," the chief justice said. "That has an incredible impact on the court system. It's getting to the point where there really is a substantial public safety issue because of the backlog in the criminal system. I'm very concerned, and not only about criminal cases not being tried. It's child support not being awarded, visitation or custody of children not being awarded and business cases that cannot be resolved."
The budget-driven slowdown in the courts comes at a time when, due to the economy, the courts are flooded with cases in which decisions must be made quickly because of pending foreclosures and bankruptcies, and because people who have been ordered to pay, let's say, $2,000 a month in child support, now are trying to eke by on jobless benefits of half that.
So what are the consequences of overly deep cuts to judicial budgets? According to Bryan Cavan, president of the Georgia Bar Association, they include:
* Fewer jury trials
* A weakening of the right to a speedy trial
* Jail overcrowding. Cavan notes that some courts are placing people charged with crimes under house arrest because there is no room in their county jail.
* A greater likelihood that those charged with crimes will be bonded out and a greater likelihood that they will never go to trial.
* Lower priority for trying civil cases, which would get pushed to the bottom of the trial calendar.
* Delays for trying divorce and custody cases.
* Less funds to pay semi-retired senior judges, who now play a vital role in handling case backlogs.
There's no question that the state's courts, and even its Supreme Court, must bear their share of budget cuts in times like these. But lawmakers should remember that overambitious, short-sighted cost cutting in the court system will create other problems with costs of their own. In a state budget the size of Georgia's, the wiser course is to focus on achieving economies elsewhere.