GA State of the Judiciary: “Our courts are like the emergency room of society. We must take all cases the law requires.”

The National Center for State Courts has an archive of 2011, 2010, and previous years State of the Judiciary addresses located here.

The Georgia State of the Judiciary address was delivered by Chief Justice Carol Hunstein on February 16. Under the terms of HR 19, the legislature met in joint session and invited any and all members of the supreme court and court of appeals to attend the speech.

Chief Justice Hunstein’s speech last year caused a minor legislative kerfuffle when, in referencing the United States, she described it as a “democracy” prompting a resolution “informing” her that the U.S. was a republic and not a democracy (that resolution went nowhere and no resolution was introduced against the governor’s reference to the U.S. as a “democracy” in his 2010 state of the state address). This year, she mentioned “democracy” five time in her speech.

Other than the “democracy” references, highlights of the Chief Justice’s speech (full text here) included:

This traditional invitation from the legislative branch to the Chief Justice underscores your interest in Georgia’s judicial system and the respect we hold for each other as separate, co-equal branches of government. At this important milestone in our new year, I welcome this opportunity to share with you today the judiciary’s accomplishments of the last year, the challenges we face, and our plans for a bright and solid future in fulfilling our duty to uphold the Constitutions of this state and our country and guarantee justice to all Georgians through fair and impartial courts.

The fall-out from the recent recession has created challenges of historic proportions. We who are government leaders sense we have entered a new era…Keeping our citizens safe is one of government’s fundamental obligations. Indeed our Georgia Constitution requires the government to protect the public safety. The courts play a crucial role in doing so.

Today, Georgia stands on the brink of making significant reform in how it sentences criminal offenders. A national wave of sentencing reform is sweeping the country, and it holds bright promise for Georgia…We are looking at alternatives to incarceration for certain offenders with two goals in mind – to improve the public safety, and to save taxpayer dollars. Georgia’s judges need more discretion in the courtroom to ensure that the sentence fits the crime.

One of our greatest successes has been our specialty courts. If we hope to save precious taxpayer dollars while protecting the public safety, the criminal justice system must change the way it has historically handled offenders with drug and alcohol addictions and mental illness…A recent report by the Georgia Department of Audits found that drug courts in this state have resulted in lower sentencing costs and lower recidivism rates. The report found that drug courts cost up to 80 percent less than the average daily cost of other traditional sentencing options.

Veterans courts, like drug and mental health courts, address our veterans and soldiers who have risked their lives in battle and come back with addictions and mental health issues that lead them into homelessness and crime…That state audit I mentioned identified 4,000 individuals who were sitting in state prison in August 2009, who potentially could have been diverted to drug court. If only 20 percent of those eligible prisoners had entered drug court, the state would have saved as much as $8 million.

Another type of specialty court we hope to pilot this year is domestic violence courts…Ladies and Gentlemen, these courts save lives, reunite families, protect the public and save money. Our goal should be to spread them to every judicial circuit of our state. As former Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich recently said to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “If I can be safer and it’s less expensive and we have citizens who are now dedicated, productive taxpaying citizens – which part of that is bad?”

Another promise for the future is a new way of compiling lists of citizens who are eligible to serve on juries. This effort has been seven years in the making and is led by my colleague, Justice Hugh Thompson. The purpose of this change is to protect everyone’s constitutional rights to equal protection and a jury of his or her peers.

Just as our juries must reflect the populace, so should our judges. Our citizens’ confidence in the courts depends on their assurance that they will receive equal justice. This is an area that needs improvement, as around the country, the diversity of judges lags far behind the population. I urge the newly appointed Judicial Nominating Commission to seek out the most highly qualified jurists, while keeping in mind the importance of having a judiciary that reflects the population.

In addressing the State of our Judiciary, I would be remiss to fail to mention that this past year marked an unprecedented number of investigations into the misconduct of a number of our judges. Since 2008, the Judicial Qualifications Commission’s investigations have resulted in the resignation or removal of 22 judges. However, I consider this a sign that the JQC, a constitutionally mandated agency under the new leadership of Jeff Davis, is aggressively pursuing its duty to identify those judges who have proven themselves unqualified to serve. The good news is that with 1800 Georgia judges, the vast majority are well qualified and fulfill their constitutional duties with the utmost integrity. The JQC is an important agency that must be fully funded to do its work.

Despite budget cuts, we have the duty to protect access to justice for all. We have the duty to uphold the Constitutions of our state and nation and the laws that you pass. We have the duty to protect individuals’ rights. The courts are one leg in the stool of our democracy that provides an essential balance in our government. Once again this year, I emphasize that the entire judicial branch receives less than 1 percent of the entire state budget. At the same time, last year we generated more than $544 million in fees, with nearly $90 million of that returned to the state general fund.

Our courts are like the emergency room of society. We must take all cases the law requires. Not surprisingly, in tough economic times, caseloads have increased in most classes of courts.

Let me be clear about the tipping point. Our state and U.S. Constitutions guarantee criminal defendants the right to a speedy trial. That means that if there are not enough judges to clear the backlog, people charged with some of the most heinous crimes will walk free – not by judicial discretion but as a matter of law.

Backlogs and delays also add to the cost of doing business in Georgia. A recent study by the Washington Economics Group of Georgia’s courts shows just how dire the effects of underfunded courts are on our economy. The study concluded that delays in resolving civil cases due to budget cuts have had adverse impacts on business proceedings throughout Georgia and affect this state’s ability to create and retain jobs and to attract and expand industries.

In closing, I invite you – as representatives of the people of this state – to familiarize yourselves with your local courts and with the appellate and Supreme Court. Your local judges would welcome your interest. I would welcome your interest. I believe you would be proud of what you saw. So please visit. And watch democracy unfold.

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