Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Judge: Municipal court isn't a 'waste of time'

Posted By on Wed, May 11, 2011 at 12:14 PM

CL's editorial board in April echoed the findings of a city audit recommending the Atlanta Municipal Court cut the number of active courtrooms and reduce the number of charges that require defendants to appear before judges, among other cost-saving measures. Like many of his colleagues, Atlanta Municipal Court Judge Gary Jackson took issue with that view.

I write to respond to your column entitled "City court should waste less of our time. " I believe that judicial oversight of our State's traffic laws promotes the health and safety of Atlanta's motoring community and is not a "waste of time." Many of the column's statements are incorrect because they are derived from an audit that is fundamentally flawed as it was premised on improper auditing standards.

Before any court can be evaluated, the legal environment in which it must function must be considered. In Georgia, traffic courts' powers are established by the General Assembly and those powers include the right to allow certain, enumerated offenses to be paid — by mail, internet, or phone — without the driver making a personal appearance in court, pursuant to an Order creating a Traffic Violations Bureau (TVB). State law, however, mandates that most "document" tickets (licenses, tags, insurance, etc.) must be heard in open court. The Atlanta Municipal Court has no power to alter this State TVB law.

Georgia law also makes most traffic cases criminal offenses, and punishment can range up to 12 months in jail, a $1000 fine plus state surcharges, and a license suspension up to 12 months. Since all criminal defendants have a right to a jury trial, a public defender if a lawyer cannot be afforded, and all other rights of a felony defendant, traffic cases take time. But adjudicating these cases is not "a waste of time" as lives are at stake every time we venture onto the road.

Keeping these concepts in mind, the column's statement that "there are at least 50 types of citations that will earn you a mandatory [court] appearance" is misleading.

It's not the Atlanta Municipal Court that requires "document case" defendants to come to the courthouse — that's a state requirement. We judges, however, have added to the mandatory court appearances/non-TVB List of cases two classes of tickets: accidents and all tickets issued to drivers under the age of 21. As elected officials we have exercised our collective discretion to require "in court" appearances in accident cases because we need to: Confirm no serious injury occurred; confirm insurance exists; preserve the right to issue appropriate sentences on a case-by-case basis (such by ordering a defendant to take defensive driving); and respect and preserve victims' rights.

Georgia laws passed after the statutes creating TVBs mandate that victims have a right to address a sentencing court by making a "victim impact statement." Since all traffic cases are criminal, accident defendants should appear in open court in order to respect victims' rights. Since we do not believe victims' rights are a "waste of time," our policy is to hear these cases in open court. The Court would have explained our policy if the auditor and CL only had asked. (In fact the auditor conducted her entire court examination without even speaking to any of the eight associate judges on any matter.)

Similarly, we judges have voted to require all tickets issued to drivers under the age of 21 be adjudicated in open court. Georgia's teenagers are the highest "at risk" drivers and our General Assembly has singled out these drivers for special scrutiny. Many traffic laws apply only to drivers under the age of 21, such as automatic license suspension for high speed cases, four-point accumulation, etc. We think it a better practice to address these "at risk" young drivers on an individual basis. We created the Atlanta Municipal Court's Teens Learning Care program for that very purpose: To educate each young driver so they can avoid injury and death on Georgia's highways. We do not think teenage driver safety is a "waste of time" as our TLC program's success rate exceeds 90 percent; but again neither the auditor nor CL ever inquired into this matter.

So yes, we do require more in court appearances than mandated by the state TVB law, but there are sound, legal reasons for our policy decisions. The CL columnist stated the city auditor "says her staff didn't have the time to sift through the hundreds of charges" that must be heard in open court. But we judges took the time to do just that. In fact, we've re-examined our TVB Order on several occasions, but none of this extensive time was recognized by the auditor as her court examination focused solely on "time on the bench."

Although Georgia law directs the State Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to consider 10 factors in evaluating the need for additional superior court judges and the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) has developed its "CourTools" evaluation system that uses nine measurements in assessing a court's operational functionality and also examines 11 other aspects of a court's activities in evaluating a court's performance; the auditor used one and only one criteria to "judge" our court: "time on the bench." While "available" time on the
bench is one of many factors considered by both the State AOC and the national NCSC, neither group uses the auditor's methodology. In fact the auditor, herself did not use "time on the bench" at all when she last audited the Municipal Court in 2004! The Boston Consulting Group in its 2003 Report that recommended reducing the number of judges from 18 to nine didn't use "time on the bench" either.

We cannot understand why this "time on the bench" factor — and only this factor — was used to evaluate the Municipal Court when no other state or nationally recognized body, the Boston Consulting Group, and even the auditor herself has ever used this sole factor to evaluate any court.

Moreover "time on the bench" ignores all work we judges do outside the courtroom such as creating and monitoring the TVB system, teaching and attending continuing education courses (which are mandated by state law), community involvement to promote highway safety, etc., and even "in chamber" discussion with counsel during actual trials.

Finally our court does not "start" late — we begin on time, as scheduled. We judges, however, take to the bench after "start time" for a number of reasons.

Our security experts have advised us to use one public entrance to the courthouse, and this does slow entries to nine separate courtrooms. Thus, safety factors dictate some defendants will be "late" to some courtrooms.

It is a common, accepted practice for both defendants with and without attorneys to negotiate pleas with prosecutors prior to the call of the court calendar. In most traffic courts, plea bargaining usually occurs immediately prior to "start time," and with scores of cases on a typical calendar, some time is involved. Prior to recent budget cuts, there were two assistant solicitors and two assistant public defenders in each courtroom, so one set of lawyers could negotiate with defendants "off the bench" while the other set was in front of the judge entering pleas. Now only one set of attorneys are available and since, by law, a judge cannot participate in plea negotiations, the only time these discussions can occur is prior to the judge taking the bench. (If they occur in the middle of a court session, the judge must leave the courtroom, which the auditor counted as not "time on the bench.") Thus while court "starts" on time, because of security and plea negotiations, the judge will always assume the bench at a later time.

If "time on the bench" is the one and only factor used to measure a court, then yes, court will start late. However, since "time on the bench" is not a proper court measurement, this "lateness" criticism is unwarranted. Again neither the auditor nor CL ever asked any judge anything about this "lateness" issue.

Of course I do not suggest the Atlanta Municipal Court is operating at 100 percent efficiency. There is room for improvement. However, I cannot accept the auditor's rejection of the NCSC's CourTools evaluation process while at the same time accepting the NCSC's 25,000 suggested annual caseload per judge and urging a judge reduction that would create a caseload of 177 percent of that same NCSC standard.

Since neither the auditor nor CL ever inquired why certain cases are heard in open court, why judges assume the bench after "start time," or anything else; this criticism of the Atlanta Municipal Court is unwarranted.

Judges take time to hear in open court all cases that should be heard because the Atlanta Municipal Court does not think traffic safety, in a criminal setting, is a "waste of time." All that is asked that in the future, you speak to us before you criticize court efficiency. Our doors are always open.

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