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Court pleads for help with illegals

LAWRENCEVILLE - Estimating up to 20 to 25 percent of their cases involve illegal immigrants, Gwinnett judges made a plea to state legislators to address the problem the only way they can - by adding another judge to the bench.

Not only has Gwinnett's astronomical population growth caused a larger burden on Gwinnett's judicial system, but the large number of non-English speakers means cases take longer, Superior Court Judge Melodie Snell Conner said in a presentation to lawmakers Thursday.

A 15-minute plea hearing takes twice the time when interpreters are involved, and criminal cases where the victim and the perpetrator speak different languages can make a trial very lengthy, she said.

Prompted by a question from a legislator, she said between 20 to 25 percent of the cases involve illegal immigrants who could face deportation.

But Conner said she once convicted an illegal immigrant of a felony only to have him appear in her court two years later for a probation violation.

Other State and Superior Court judges agreed with the percentage.

"Every calender I deal with has someone on it that's illegal," said Superior Court Judge Tom Davis.

He estimates 25 percent of his cases are with non-English speakers and the percentage is just slightly smaller for people who are illegal.

"A lot of it's federal," Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, said of the influx of illegals. "What are you going to do?"

While a felony conviction is grounds for deportation, the federal government is charged with that action, as well as maintaining the country's borders.

"We just have to demand our federal government protect our borders," Rep. Clay Cox, R-Lilburn, said. "Until we have the muster to do that, we will continue to pay the costs of the judicial system."

In January, Gwinnett's sixth State Court judge will take the bench, but officials spent Thursday lobbying the legislators for a 10th Superior Court judge. Superior Court has jurisdiction over criminal felonies, domestic and civil cases, while State Court has jurisdiction over misdemeanors and some civil cases.

The Judicial Council of Georgia has voted Gwinnett as the No. 1 need for a Superior Court judge in the state, and the Administrative Office of the Court said the county qualified for 12.3 judges to handle the 2005 case load.

Chief Judge Robert Mock said State Court would likely ask for another judge in 2008.

Judges asked legislators for support with new DUI and drug courts as well as for a boost in salaries to keep in line with other jurisdictions in the area.