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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Judges oppose downsizing of city court

Last month, city jailers blasted the City Council about proposed cutbacks in their department.

Yesterday, it was the municipal court judges' turn. And they're claiming the city doesn't have the power to dismiss them.

At a meeting of the Council Finance Committee on Wednesday, Judge Barbara Harris led other court employees in stating their opposition to a proposed downsizing of the muni court. There are currently 11 judges, but Mayor Franklin's proposed 2010 budget only includes funding for 8 judge positions.

If this issue sounds familiar, it's because city officials began sometime last year discussing — with the judges themselves — a reduction in the number of municipal courtrooms. Supposedly,  a tentative agreement had been reached with three judges who volunteered to retire. But that was before the recent economic collapse wiped out many people's savings. Now, it seems, the judges have decided they want to stay on — even Judge Andrew Mickle, who was busted last year for a DUI.

Downsizing the court isn't simply a cost-cutting measure. There's a real question whether the city needs so many courtrooms, since the volume of traffic tickets has dropped sharply in recent years. One of the first major changes Franklin enacted after she was elected in 2002 was a consolidation of the municipal and traffic courts, with felonies being bound over to Fulton County, as stipulated by state law. Now, with the city court handling only traffic citations and minor code violations, the caseload has been greatly reduced. Keep in mind that each courtroom costs the city nearly half a million dollars a year when you consider the salaries for the judge, court reporter, bailiff and other support personnel.

Yesterday, judges pointed out a loophole in the city code that they believe makes it impossible for the mayor or Council to eliminate their positions.

Atlanta municipal court judges aren't elected; they're appointed. Every four years, each judge's name appears on the ballot — unopposed — and voters have a simple yes-or-no option for indicating whether the judge should be "retained." No judge has ever come close to losing this form of election; the typical vote is about 80 percent in favor of retention.

Judge Harris argued yesterday that the decision of whether an individual judge keeps his or her job is not up to the Council; instead, voters have the sole power to un-retain a judge. That sounds effectively like an argument that municipal court judges have lifetime appointments.

The Council, on the other hand, maintains that it has the authority to determine the number of judges employed by the city.

Expect this disagreement to be resolved — you guessed it — in court.

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