Judiciary could see more funds

Modest funding increase possible

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ATLANTA — The state’s improving financial outlook could mean a modest funding increase for Georgia’s judiciary after years of bruising budget battles that turned the judicial branch into a favorite target of lawmakers seeking to slash spending.

The judicial branch’s budget situation was so dire in 2009 that Georgia’s top judges considered whether to take emergency legal action to stop the state from cutting their funding.

Rising tax revenue and support from Gov. Nathan Deal, an attorney whose son is a north Georgia judge, has helped buoy the judiciary’s hopes for the upcoming year.

“I’m very much encouraged,” said Cordele Super­ior Court Judge John Pridgen, the head of the Council of Su­perior Court Judges. “We’re not going to recover all that was lost in the short run, but the mood is much better. And there’s some hope on our part that we can at least regain some of the things we’ve lost in the hard budgetary times.”

DEAL HAS LITTLE say in the judicial proposals included in his budget, which was released Wednesday. The state’s separation of powers requires the governor to submit the spending plan the judiciary sends him. But one item he made sure to add to the request is one of his pet projects: A $10 million grant to fund a system of accountability courts for alternative treatment of some low-level offenders.

“While these reforms require an initial investment, they will increase public safety and ultimately save money by creating a more effective corrections system that rehabilitates people, closing the revolving door,” Deal told lawmakers.

The rest of the request includes funding increases that would allow the hiring of more clerks, additional attorneys and new equipment to help the courts reverse a backlog of court cases.

It gives prosecutors a nearly $3 million boost that would partly go to hire victim advocates and new assistant district attorneys, and proposes a new infusion of cash for the public defender system to meet rising costs. It would grant $145,000 in extra spending to the Georgia Supreme Court to fund a pay increase for staff attorneys and create a dedicated clerk for death penalty cases.

The Judicial Quali­fica­tions Commission would get $106,000 to hire another investigator – a move that delights Director Jeff Davis, who has long argued that more staff are needed to meet the growing number of misconduct complaints.

The Georgia Resource Center, which handles death penalty appeals, would get enough money this year to keep doors open after losing most of its funding amid the economic troubles.

THE PROPOSAL IS just part of a long process, and lawmakers will now spend the next few months wrangling over the details. But judicial branch officials say they’re confident they are far removed from the more tumultuous times in recent years when stiff cuts threatened to spark a legal battle between the governor’s office and the judicial branch.

The tension reached a head in 2009 when plummeting tax collections forced Gov. Sonny Perdue to order all state agencies – the judiciary included – to cut their budgets by 25 percent for June. Georgia’s leading attorneys went on the offensive, arguing that Perdue lacked the legal authority to slash the judiciary’s funding. The governor warned them not to pursue “futile and unwise litigation,” and the fight seemed headed for a courtroom until the two branches struck a compromise that allowed both sides to save face.

A year later, Chief Justice Carol Hunstein warned that the courts were in peril of failing to fulfill their constitutional mandates because of another round of deep cuts that forced offices to fire staff and furlough workers. The Georgia Supreme Court, for instance, banned travel, closed its modest law library, furloughed the justices and fired staff.

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