Judges up next for cuts

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Gwinnett would lose a judge under a proposal at the Gold Dome to help balance the state budget.

But with a growing case load already, local judges are drafting legislators to fight the idea, which would cut 19 Superior Court judges statewide.

"In short, the passage of this bill will be a devastating blow for our state and for Gwinnett County in our efforts to keep the criminal justice system moving forward at a time when our caseload is growing tremendously," Judge Billy Ray, a former state senator, said in a letter to the county's Senate delegation.

By eliminating 19 judgeships, the state will save $13 to $14 million and return to 2004-05 levels, said Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, who introduced the measure earlier this week.

"Due to declining revenues for over 20 months and significant budget cuts over the past few years, we are now forced to find efficiencies and savings everywhere possible," Seabaugh said. "In some cases, this requires legislative action to reduce the size and scope of government."

He said he based his proposal on balancing the caseload throughout the state, eliminating judgeship that averaged about 1,200 cases per judge.

But Ray said his premise for Gwinnett was inaccurate, as local judges handle an average of 2,000 cases each.

On top of that, many of the rural communities have Superior Court judges that handle hundreds of traffic cases. In Gwinnett, those are left to the Recorder's Court, leaving local Superior Court judges handling only felony crime cases and certain civil cases.

"You can't do an apples-to-apples comparison. You've got to consider the complexity of the cases we have," he said of the county's 10 Superior Court judges.

The proposal would also have an impact on prosecutors and investigators in the district attorney's office as well as funding for indigent defense, which are partially based on the number of judges in each circuit.

Another impact would be felt in county funding for people incarcerated at the jail waiting on a trial, he said. If trials are delayed, it will cost more to house the defendants.

"If Gwinnett County were to lose a Superior Court judgeship, the growing number of cases and the complexity of these cases will not change, and our judicial system will eventually be crippled," said the letter, which was signed by all 10 local Superior Court judges.