Speaker Ralston, Lieutenant Governor Cagle, members of the Georgia General Assembly, my fellow justices and judges, ladies and gentlemen:
Forty years ago, at the invitation of then House Speaker Tom Murphy, Chief Justice H.E. Nichols stood most likely where I stand today and for the first time reported to a joint session of the General Assembly on the State of Georgia’s Judiciary.
As your new Chief Justice, I am honored that Speaker Ralston has asked me to carry on this historic annual tradition.
As the head of the third branch of government, it is my duty, and my privilege, to report to you today what the judicial branch has accomplished in the last year, the problems it still faces, and with your help, the steps it will take to solve them.
With gratitude to you and to Governor Deal for your leadership and support of our courts, I say with confidence that Georgia’s judicial branch is today strong and on a course toward becoming more efficient and even stronger in the future.
Our mission as judges, however, remains the same: to interpret the laws fairly, clearly, consistently and in a prompt and impartial manner. Our constitutional duty was determined by our forefathers and requires that we uphold the rule of law. I believe the rule of law to be the very lifeblood of our judicial system, and that which gives liberty and justice to all. Judges are mandated to apply it equally to every citizen who comes before us.
But Georgia is a much different state than when Chief Justice Nichols stood here, and Georgia’s judiciary must keep up with a growing population, growing caseloads and growing technological advances.
Two thousand and seventeen will be an historic year of change for the judicial branch. When Chief Justice Nichols spoke to this august body, all seven members of the Supreme Court most likely were here. Since 1945, seven is the number of justices Georgia has had on its highest court. But beginning this year, we now have nine.
I am delighted to introduce to you today our three new highly accomplished justices who were appointed by Governor Deal and who just took office this month. Justices Michael Boggs, Nels Peterson, and Britt Grant – would you all please stand.
The growth of our appellate courts is necessary in the face of increasingly complex litigation and a growth in our state’s population that has made Georgia the eighth most populous state in the country.
Governor Deal also recently appointed three new judges to the Georgia Court of Appeals. Judges Clyde Reese, Charlie Bethel and Tripp Self, would the three of you also please stand.
This year, Georgia has a highly unusual number of 32 newly elected or appointed superior court judges. Significantly, their average age is only 49, which is nearly a decade younger than the sitting judges of a number of other states.
Many of our new trial court judges are here today, and I would ask all of our judges – new and not so new – who are in the gallery and who represent all classes of courts to please stand so that you, our legislators, can thank them for the work they do.
I also would like to introduce to you my wife, Helen, whom I was so very lucky to convince to marry me way back in 1969. When I met her, my father said, “Harris, Miss Hill is your very best hope. Don’t mess this up.”
I point out to you, in case you haven’t noticed, that this new crop of justices and judges may be a bit younger than I. But I am most hopeful that this old dog – and some other somewhat old dogs – can still teach these young and talented dogs a few tricks.
For they are the face of our future. Today we stand on the brink of a new judiciary in Georgia, fortified by the next generation of judges – a young dynamic team who will infuse energy and new ideas into this important branch of government. They are the ones who will help shape our judiciary for future generations.
Governor Deal had a clear, farseeing vision for the judiciary. He has purposely appointed younger judges to help bring continuity, stability and reliability to the rule of law in Georgia through the opinions and judgments we render.
The efficiency of our appellate courts has been further strengthened by your support last year of an historic shift in jurisdiction – or the kinds of cases our two appellate courts handle. That change is now in place, and with the shift from the Supreme Court to the Court of Appeals of cases involving wills, divorce and titles to land, Georgia’s highest court is now poised to accept more appeals in the most complex and consequential cases that have the greatest implications for the law and society.
Another historic change affecting our courts has been ongoing criminal justice reform. This will be one of Governor Deal’s most significant legacies, and a reflection of the greatness that can come about when all three branches of government come together for a common purpose.
Thanks to the governor; thanks to all of you in the legislature; and thanks to colleagues of mine on the Supreme Court who were on the ground floor of this reform, the last six years have made Georgia a national leader in smart criminal justice reform policy.
Other states now look to emulate us.
We are all grateful to my friend and new colleague, Justice Michael Boggs, and the Council on Criminal Justice Reform that he has co-chaired for the last five years. This bipartisan council, also now co-chaired by Carey Miller, the governor’s executive deputy counsel, has worked hard in coming up with numerous policy recommendations.
Thanks to your legislative support, the accomplishments of this reform have been extraordinary. We have enacted policies that hold criminal offenders accountable, improve public safety and save taxpayer dollars by reserving prison beds for our violent and most serious offenders while steering many non-violent offenders into specialty courts to deal with the underlying behavior that got them into trouble with the law.
Today, across Georgia, we have 139 specialty courts, including drug courts, mental health courts, DUI courts, and veterans courts.
This year, the Council will be addressing another area that needs reform. Today Georgia has the highest probation rate in the nation. Let me repeat that: We have the highest rate of people on probation in the United States. Our prison rate is now comparable to that of other southeastern states, but we place four times as many adults on probation per capita than the national average. And we keep them on probation longer. Half are on probation for misdemeanors, including such infractions as not having enough money to pay a $100 fine for a broken tail light.
The Council will be making a number of recommendations to you for reforming the probation sentencing of low-risk, non-violent offenders who, based on validated risk and needs assessments, pose low public safety risks. The goal is to shift low-level probationers off supervision rolls, but only after they have successfully completed a defined period of supervision. At an eventual savings of more than $7 million, the Council recommends freeing up 140 probation officers in the next five years to concentrate on high-level offenders who are more of a risk to our citizens.
We have freed up prison beds for the most hardened, dangerous felons. And it’s working. We now want to do the same with probationers and free up the limited resources of the Department of Community Supervision so it can focus on the highest risk offenders.
Because of your support, criminal justice reform in Georgia has saved millions in taxpayer dollars, improved public safety and helped countless Georgia families. The judiciary thanks you for this.
In the time I have at the helm of this branch of government, my hope is to help steer this ship in the direction of a more cohesive and efficient judiciary. I understand that like the other branches of government, we must be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and constantly be looking for ways to reduce duplication of services and efforts, and make our branch the most efficient possible. As we move toward the future, we cannot afford to work at cross purposes as we are far more effective and efficient working together.
I want the judicial branch to be a brand, a good brand, and a good brand is a promise that is always kept. I will therefore be working with the Judicial Council, the Court of Appeals, and all classes of courts to improve the workings of the judicial branch and begin to lay the groundwork for its more efficient management.
There are other areas of the court system that with your help we can improve. One of my priorities is to put more focused attention on the problem of modest income, working-class people who simply cannot afford legal representation. At one end of the scale, people of means can afford to hire lawyers; at the other end, very poor people often qualify for legal aid services. But working class citizens of quite modest means, the working poor, are too often caught in the middle – earning too much to qualify for legal aid but not enough to hire attorneys. The man in the nursing home who wants to leave what little he owns to his only child, should be able to find affordable legal help to write a simple will that complies with the law.
Financially solid individuals and large businesses can afford lawyers, but many mom and pop grocery stores, family farms and working class families struggle mightily to pay for legal services. This leads to too many Georgians having to represent themselves in court.
In the last year, our Georgia courts heard more than 800,000 cases involving self-represented litigants. Not only are people who represent themselves more likely to lose their case due to their lack of legal knowledge, but they also slow down court proceedings.
I in no way suggest that we abandon our efforts to help the indigent, as there is a waiting list of those trying to get help from overworked legal aid attorneys. But we must address this gap into which people of modest means have fallen.
Our courts and the State Bar of Georgia have been working on this problem and have come up with some helpful solutions. Innovative self-help clinics and kiosks, combined with the growing use of technology to help people fill out legal forms and petitions, have certainly helped in courts that have them.
Chief Judge Cassandra Kirk of the Fulton County Magistrate Court has helped create a clinic that provides legal support to tenants who are about to be evicted. Her court also has partnered with the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation to provide trained attorneys proficient in landlord-tenant disputes.
I am particularly proud of a program we have developed here in Georgia, under the leadership of John Sammon of the Supreme Court’s Office of Bar Admissions, and Professor Clark Cunningham of Georgia State University’s College of Law. As a result of the Georgia Supreme Court’s adoption of new rules broadening the supervised practice of law students, this year more than 1,000 current law students will be representing low and moderate income Georgians in legal matters who otherwise could not afford a lawyer. It’s a win-win for both the law students and the clients, and it does not cost the clients or the State a dime.
But these programs are not enough. For those who are seeking legal help, sometimes it appears that we don’t have a system, we have a maze. We must come up with a system to ensure that those who need legal assistance get it – creative solutions for filling this gap, whether through legislation, court rules, or technology. I intend to work with the State Bar of Georgia and law schools to explore how best to address this need.
During my term as Chief Justice, I also want to draw attention to our “courts of first resort.” For most Georgians, their first – and often only – exposure to our judicial system is in a municipal, magistrate or probate court. It is vital that these courts of first resort, which adjudicate more cases than any other class of courts, provide our citizens a speedy, effective and just resolution of their cases. These courts are the face of the rule of law, and our citizens’ confidence in our justice system depends on these courts’ ability to serve them. Yet our courts of first resort are sorely in need of attention and help in many ways.
Municipal Court Judge Gary Jackson, president of the statewide Council of Municipal Court Judges, works at the busiest court in Georgia – Atlanta Municipal Court. He typically hears more than 100 cases each day. People with traffic tickets, property violations and other matters line up – sometimes for hours – to get justice. For the individuals appearing before Judge Jackson, these are not inconsequential matters. But imagine hearing 100 individual sets of facts a day and issuing 100 decisions.
Our procedures in these courts may be more burdensome and convoluted than necessary.
I believe it is time for a thorough study of the processing of cases in courts of first resort to identify the changes we need to make to guarantee our citizens speedy resolutions of their cases while meeting constitutional requirements of due process.
We must ensure that these courts have the resources they need, that they are presided over by judges who are well trained, and that they run efficiently.
I also want to speak up for our superior court judges, whose jurisdiction includes the most serious crimes and complex civil litigation. Our judicial branch could work far more efficiently if all our superior court judges had law clerks. A judge’s work product must be clean and clear so that understandable guidance is given to lawyers and the people and the businesses of Georgia. Our decisions must always uphold the rule of law.
One way to improve the efficiency of our courts and get a lot of bang for the buck is to fund a law clerk for every superior court judge. With law clerks, our judges could handle more cases; they could hand`le them more efficiently; and they could decide them more speedily.
Perhaps most of all, Georgia’s juvenile court judges deserve our support. Our juvenile court judges are on the front line of crime prevention. They are often the first to identify that the reason a child may be creating havoc at school is because at home he’s being harmed by his alcoholic father. Whether we’re talking about criminal justice reform or the efficiency of our courts, how we deal with our youngest, most vulnerable citizens – whether as victims or as fresh new lawbreakers – must be carefully, compassionately and skillfully handled. Here, more than anywhere else, we have to get it right.
Because of the important work our juvenile court judges do, I believe we need to work toward a system of independent, full-time juvenile court judges. Juvenile law is complex and statutorily driven. We have a new juvenile code. We must attract the best and the brightest, and give them the resources they need.
As one of my administrative duties – apart from my duties as a Justice – I have chaired the Supreme Court Committee on Justice for Children for the last 16 years. It has been perhaps the most fulfilling job I have had as a judge. Like many of you, I was blessed to come up in a wonderful household. I truly had a deliriously happy childhood. My parents loved me, and they loved and respected each other. But as a judge, I have seen the bad things that some adults do to children. As a justice on our state’s highest court, I have labored over appeals of murder convictions of parents who have brutalized and killed their children. You have read the stories. They do seem to be ongoing.
But the Committee on Justice for Children has not stood still. Our work in improving the process for child neglect and abuse cases is one of the most important things government can do. I am so very proud of this outstanding committee, which includes judges, legislators, agency heads, group home owners and pediatricians. Our Cold Case Project has helped move hundreds of children from foster care into permanent homes where they are loved and supported. We have sponsored 54 attorneys who are now certified by the American Bar Association as child welfare specialists. Six of these attorneys have gone on to become juvenile court judges.
One of our Committee members is Bobby Cagle, Director of the Division of Family and Children Services. I am grateful to Governor Deal – himself a former juvenile court judge – for having appointed Mr. Cagle to lead this critical agency.
Bobby was himself a foster child who was adopted from an orphanage when he was 10 months old by two very loving parents in North Carolina. Bobby has told me that he is exactly where he needs to be, because he more than anyone, knows how critical it is for a child to have a loving, intact family. He is deeply committed to the most fragile children and families in our state. He has also taken steps to make the child welfare system more transparent. Under his leadership, today we have a computer data exchange system where every juvenile court judge can see information about foster care children. The purpose is to ensure that everyone involved in a child’s life has the same information so that the best decisions are made for that child. This year, the judicial branch has a budget request to institutionalize this successful computer exchange project, and I ask for your support.
Ladies and gentlemen, without our intervention, today’s abused and neglected children could easily become tomorrow’s juvenile and adult offenders. Our number one criminal justice reform must be to ensure, to the best of our ability, that every child is loved, guided, protected, and supported, not by the State, but by at least one committed adult, preferably more.
Bobby Cagle shares that belief, and I am proud to introduce him to you. Bobby, would you please stand.
Forty years ago, Chief Justice Nichols pointed out that across the street from you, we justices at the Supreme Court of Georgia do a lot more than decide cases. Today – as back then – we also have administrative duties as head of the judicial branch that are apart from normal court administration. I have just described mine as chair of the Committee on Justice for Children, which I am handing over to my most able friend and colleague, Justice David Nahmias.
But all our justices are each involved in providing leadership in every aspect of the judicial system. They serve on, and lead, committees on court technology, the professionalism of lawyers, and access and fairness in the courts. They act as liaisons to the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the State Bar of Georgia, and the Office of Dispute Resolution.
Four decades ago, Chief Justice Nichols specifically stated that without the Supreme Court’s leadership, and I quote, “the judiciary devolves into fragments, each trying to do what it can to improve the system but not always acting with the sense of purpose and unity that comes from leadership at the top.”
I am grateful for Presiding Justice Harold Melton, my good friend and colleague.
As one of his key administrative duties, Presiding Justice Melton chairs the court system’s committee on technology. His vice chairman is Superior Court Judge David Emerson of Douglas County.
Key to the future of our courts – to making our courts more efficient, to serving those who are encountering harsh economic circumstances, and to making our courts accessible to all our citizens – is technology.
We are on the brink of solving many of the courts’ problems through technology.
Gwinnett County Probate Judge Christopher Ballar has used technology to streamline the process of issuing birth and death certificates. Using a computer program that searches, retrieves and issues the certificates, the program also helps prevent fraud and identity theft. Also in Gwinnett County, Superior Court Judge Randy Rich and other judges, in cooperation with the sheriff, are regularly using videoconferencing to cut down on having to transport inmates from the county jail to the courthouse. By doing so, they have increased public safety while making substantial cost savings.
Courts across Georgia have made great strides in moving from using paper documents and filings to using “e-filing” – or the electronic filing of court documents and records. In 2017, e-filing will become the norm.
Presiding Justice Melton’s outstanding committee has led this effort and established rules that enable different systems to talk to each other. The Committee has worked more cooperatively with court clerks than ever before. The need now in Georgia is to tie the systems together so we have a centralized one-stop shop. Right now, there is no central entry point for e-filing across the state, and that is because there is no single portal. We need a single entryway – such as a website – where individuals can file and look up documents using a single password.
Presiding Justice Melton and his committee members are the experts. I know he has talked to a number of you, and it’s time to go forward with a centralized system. The committee has a budget request for making this happen, and I do ask for your support. It will go a long way toward improving the efficiency of Georgia’s courts.
In closing, I again thank all of you in the legislature for your support of the judiciary. We share the same mission of serving the citizens of this state. And we could not do our jobs without your help.
I also thank all of the judges of Georgia who each day must make difficult decisions, balancing mercy and justice. They most often make these decisions alone, praying for courage.
And I thank my friends and colleagues on the Supreme Court for having faith in me and allowing me the opportunity to lead it.
In parting, I end with the words of my predecessor of 40 years ago, Chief Justice Nichols:
“Because of my unswerving belief that our system of government is the noblest, the grandest and the greatest system of government ever conceived by mind of man, and for the great honor you have bestowed upon me in inviting me to come here today and address you in Joint Session, and, of course, for your kind attention, I thank you from the depth of my being.”
God bless all of you, and God bless the great state of Georgia.