Georgia’s courts are working hard to get out of a backlog of cases created and exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, but a shortage of lawyers is hampering some of those efforts, the state’s top judge said on Wednesday.
During his State of the Judiciary speech, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Boggs thanked members of the state house and senate, as well as the governor, for providing funding to help the courts recover from the pandemic. Still, he said, the staff shortage persists.
Despite some challenges, the state’s judiciary remains strong, said Boggs, who also used his speech to highlight successes in the courts. These include efforts to improve access to courts through remote conferencing technology, a new court for child victims of human trafficking, and the use of veteran courts to reduce recidivism rates among that population.
“Some of you may think fewer lawyers is a good thing — I won’t be calling for a vote, Mr. Speaker,” Boggs joked, eliciting chuckles from the lawmakers gathered in the House Chamber. “But as you all know, justice depends on lawyers.”
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He noted that the Board of Attorney had 43 open positions statewide in December, compared to just 11 in July 2020. Public defense offices are also struggling to find lawyers, despite recent legislation to bring parity to public lawyers’ starting salaries . defenders and prosecutors, he said.
The shortage of lawyers slows down the process of handling criminal cases, many of which are pending, leaving people languishing in jail awaiting charges or trial, Boggs said. He noted that the problem is especially acute outside of the Atlanta area and in rural parts of the state.
Georgia’s courts are working to clear a backlog of cases caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The chief justice said on Wednesday that a shortage of lawyers is slowing down the courts.
Civil cases, such as divorce, child custody and eviction proceedings, are also affected by the shortage of lawyers. Of the state’s 159 counties, 67 counties have 10 or fewer practicing attorneys and seven rural counties have none at all, he said.
“I think you will all agree that access to justice is a foundation of our nation’s justice system, but that the fundamental right of access is denied to many during their most dire life challenges,” Boggs said.
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The chief justice also expressed concern for the safety of the state’s judges. “Our judicial system depends on judges who decide cases without fear, including fear for their personal safety or that of their families,” he said.
The state Supreme Court has created a new Judicial Safety Commission, chaired by Supreme Court Justice Shawn Ellen LaGrua, to focus on the security challenges facing the state’s justices. Boggs said he expects it to have recommendations for lawmakers to consider next year.