Augusta-area attorneys used to grouse – outside earshot of a judge – about the long wait to get a court hearing set, especially if the case didn’t involve a criminal defendant in jail.
These days those lawyers might be biting their tongues as they race from courtroom to courtroom trying to keep pace with eight Superior Court judges who no longer have to jostle over limited space.
With the opening of the Augusta Judicial Center and John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse in 2011, space is usually not a problem anymore.
Since April, all eight of the Augusta Judicial Circuit’s Superior Court judges have been assigned criminal and civil cases. Over the past two years, the judges have changed a division of labor that had limited judges with the least seniority to domestic cases.
The change has reduced the average time until cases are closed.
Five years ago, the average time between indictment and closure was 235 days. Last year, that dropped to 163 days, according to an analysis by The Augusta Chronicle of Richmond County criminal cases.
There still are exceptions, such as homicide cases, which often take a year or more to close. One such case is a 2008 death penalty case in which an Augusta man is accused of killing a pregnant teenager and her mother and stepfather.
Adjudicating cases as quickly as possible has a financial benefit, as operating the jail is one of the county’s largest expenses. It costs the county an estimated $45 a day to house an inmate. At the end of 2012, 213 people were in jail pending trial – 34 of them for a year or more.
Judge J. Wade Padgett, who was the last to join the rotation of case assignment of criminal and civil cases, said he is determined to keep close tabs on criminal cases. Earlier this month, he sharply questioned a prosecutor who said a murder case set for trial Feb. 25 wasn’t ready because he was still waiting for the sheriff’s office’s investigative report. The man accused had been in jail four months, but attorneys on both sides needed that report before they could do meaningful work on the case.
On Friday, Judge Daniel J. Craig expressed frustration over delays in two murder cases that were to be scheduled for trial next month. Both defendants had been in jail for more than a year. In one case, the prosecutor had just received a complete autopsy report. In the second, the case had just been assigned to a private practice attorney because the public defender’s office could not defend the man because of their representation of a key witness.
Padgett recently met with prosecutors and defense attorneys involved in more than 50 cases set for trial next week. He pushed attorneys to close cases, but many defendants had been indicted only five days earlier.
Attorneys have obligations to their clients, District Attorney Ashley Wright said, and cannot close cases just to get them off their plates.
With more judges hearing criminal cases, attorneys are spending more time in court, leaving less office time for working on cases, Wright said. Without the generosity of law enforcement officers who often work with prosecutors on nights and weekends and during vacations, Wright said she didn’t think her office could keep up.
Craig and Padgett, both of whom worked as defense and prosecuting attorneys, want to work with attorneys at their own pace, but the judges also have a duty to ensure people are not denied speedy trial and closure, they said.
The five judges presiding over domestic cases also need to ensure those cases, which have certain time-sensitive issues, are handled in a timely fashion, Padgett said.
Craig said his practice is to let attorneys in civil cases set the pace and request hearings or trial dates when they need them. Craig, who has been presiding over domestic, civil and criminal cases since April 2011, said he hasn’t had any problems in accommodating attorneys in civil cases so far.
In 2012, each judge was assigned about 93 civil cases and criminal cases involving about 300 defendants. Craig, Padgett, and Judges Michael N. Annis, Sheryl B. Jolly and J. David Roper were each assigned about 339 domestic cases, too.
The Superior Court judges also preside over criminal, civil and domestic cases in Columbia and Burke counties.