Changes ahead in courts

Andrew Davis Tucker/Staff
Incoming Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet said the judges recognize the need for diversity in the courtroom.

Change is coming to the Augusta Judicial Circuit, the first in decades.

One of the first changes the Superior Court judges will initiate is filling the juvenile court judge's position in Richmond County that has been vacant since Judge Herbert Kernighan Jr. died.

The judges are contemplating asking two or more attorneys to serve part time instead of choosing just one. And for the first time, those with business in the court might see a woman or a black judge on the bench.

In a recent interview with Chronicle editors, incoming Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet said the Superior Court judges, who decide who fills the four-year juvenile judgeships, acknowledge the need for diversity in the job. The judges have always been older, white men in the past.

All applications were due Friday, Judge Overstreet said.

Another change some would like to see realized in the Augusta circuit is the creation of drug courts. Instead of sentencing drug offenders to prison or probation to succeed or fail on their own, drug courts closely supervise defendants and provide intensive treatment and counseling, and drug testing.

It would require a commitment of the judges and someone would have to supervise, Judge Overstreet said.

He estimated that drugs are responsible for the majority of criminal cases: people using or selling drugs, stealing or otherwise committing crimes to buy drugs, or committing crimes while under the influence of drugs.

"You've got to try something," Judge Overstreet said.

How the judges conduct business in Superior Court also could change. Judge Overstreet said case management, not case assignment, needs overhauling.

"We just have to get on into the 21st century," he said.

He said he hopes the court clerks' current computer program can be updated to include case management.

Right now the judges have only a manual system of hauling cases from the entry point of arraignment to conclusion, Judge Overstreet said.

That wasn't difficult when the circuit was small, but it's now nearly impossible with the thousands of cases in the system.

The eight Superior Court judges also will vote on the local rules of court this spring. These rules spell out how the judges divide and assign cases.

Currently, the five judges with the most seniority are assigned to preside over civil and criminal cases. The three remaining judges are responsible for domestic cases such as divorce and child custody.

One of the biggest changes already discussed is mediation - Alternative Dispute Resolution - for domestic court cases.

In a meeting Thursday with Richmond County officials, several judges outlined their plans.

Judge Overstreet said he signed the documents earlier this month that join the Augusta circuit with the surrounding 10th Judicial District's program.

People filing for divorce will go through the mediation process, which can be faster and cheaper than the current judicial procedure.

It should make the process less adversarial and reduce the caseloads of judges, Judge Overstreet said.

Judge Duncan D. Wheale said courts in Athens have been using mediation successfully for about 10 years.

The use of mediation might also be expanded to civil cases. Judge James G. Blanchard said it could be especially helpful to resolve cases that have been pending several years. That often happens because the parties can neither reach a settlement nor justify the expense of trial. The case stalemates, he said.

It is also difficult for complex civil cases to get to trial because of limited courtroom space, Judge Overstreet said. Richmond and Columbia counties have only two courtrooms, and Burke County has one.

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

CHANGES

Possible changes for the Augusta Judicial Circuit:

- Fill vacant juvenile court judge position

- Creation of drug courts

- Overhaul of case management with new software for court clerks' computers

- Vote on local rules of court

- Implementing mediation for domestic court cases and possibly civil cases