Originally created 02/02/05

Judicial reform plan rejected



Gov. Sonny Perdue has asked the state's superior court judges to keep working on a plan to improve accountability in the use of senior judges.

Molly Perry, the director of the Superior Court Judges Council, said Tuesday that a committee appointed after The Augusta Chronicle reported problems with the senior judge system presented its proposal for changes to the governor's legal counsel Jan. 18.

"We understood after that that they (the governor and staff) were looking for more," Ms. Perry said.

On Dec. 5, The Chronicle published an article detailing how senior judges are deployed in the state's 47 judicial circuits.

The current system has little accountability or oversight; rarely shows a correlation between the caseload in a judicial circuit and the amount of time the retired judges are paid to work there; and costs 200 percent more in Georgia than in other similar-sized states.

After the report, the superior court judges appointed a committee to examine the system by which retired judges are called back into service.

The governor had agreed to wait to see what the judges propose to do, but Ms. Perry said the judges now understand he and the lawmakers might press ahead with legislation on their own.

Perdue spokesman Shane Hix said Tuesday that the governor isn't rushing to introduce legislation.

He expects to see more recommendations from the committee first, Mr. Hix said.

"Legislation hasn't been ruled out either," he said.

One change the judges proposed last month and intend to include in future proposals is to stop paying senior judges per diem, Ms. Perry said.

However, it can only be a voluntary request to the senior judges because current law allows the additional payments from state funds, she said.

The Chronicle investigation revealed some senior judges - such as Bernard J. Mulherin Sr. of the Augusta Judicial Circuit - have collected an additional $128 daily per diem in addition to the $467 regular daily pay for leaving their home county to conduct court elsewhere, even when the trip is only as far as from Augusta to Columbia County.

The per diem is paid in addition to mileage expenses.

The special committee wants the senior judges to only collect for actual expenses instead of the per diem, Ms. Perry said.

To make that mandatory, however, legislators would have to change the law.

The legislators also would have to change the law in regard to the practice in some judicial circuits, such as Augusta, where senior judges work nearly full time.

Although the Augusta Judicial Circuit ranked 38th in caseloads when compared to the rest of Georgia, it called in senior judges for more days than any other judicial circuit, The Chronicle found.

On Jan. 6, Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr. signed an order that permanently appointed Judge Mulherin and newly retired Judge Albert M. Pickett to serve in the Augusta circuit.

The special committee is trying to develop a way for the judges to better track the requests for senior judges and instill better management so potential abuses can be identified, Ms. Perry said.

The special committee has found the state's judicial circuits are varied in how senior judges are called into service.

In one metro Atlanta circuit, for example, judges must fill out a special request form to ask for help from a senior judge, she said.

"We're trying to move everybody toward the middle," Ms. Perry said.

It's possible the judges might make use of the Council of Superior Court Judges to funnel and approve requests for senior judges.

Any new system must allow flexibility for emergencies while still providing accountability, Ms. Perry said.

The executive members of the judges' counsel are meeting again this week to work on the details, Ms. Perry said.

The members will try to have a new proposal for the governor's legal staff this month.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.