Georgia's incoming top judge says budget cuts will hurt justice

ATLANTA — Georgia's next top judge warned that more budget cuts to the state's cash-strapped judicial branch would lead to more delays in an array of legal cases.

Justice Carol Hunstein, who becomes the Georgia Supreme Court's chief justice in July, said she will urge the governor to spare the judicial branch from the possibility of another round of budget cuts amid the economic downturn.

"It's imperative that the courts have the resources that they need to continue to serve the public and fulfill their constitutional duty for access to justice," she said Tuesday in an interview in her office.

"The old adage is, 'Justice delayed is justice denied,'" she said, adding: "I think there are some instances of it (being denied) now."

The judicial branch was at the center of a budget battle with Gov. Sonny Perdue earlier this month over his order for the judiciary, along with a range of government departments, to slash 25 percent of its June budget.

Judicial leaders had called the order "unconstitutional" and warned the cuts could bring the courts to a standstill. But Perdue countered that they were needed to cope with plummeting tax receipts in a recession and that other government groups had adopted them.

The judges struck a last-minute compromise that averted a constitutional showdown between the two branches when Perdue agreed to allow judicial leaders to cut costs by deferring some of the expenses until July.

But the possibility that there could be more cuts weighs heavy on Hunstein.

"It's important for me to share with legislators and those in the executive branch that these cuts - and those that may happen in the future - are seriously damaging the citizens of the state of Georgia's access to their court system."

She added: "We simply cannot function if we don't have the personnel."

Hunstein is a former DeKalb County Superior Court Judge who was tapped by Gov. Zell Miller in 1992 to become the second woman to serve on Georgia's top court.

She was targeted in 2006 by a conservative challenger who painted her as a liberal judge, but she handily won the hard-fought election. She said at the time it was a sign voters want a veteran judge with no political allegiances.

Hunstein takes over as the judicial branch's leader for Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, who is stepping down at the end of the month. Sears, who some viewed as a potential nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, will teach a law school course and work part-time for a law firm and a think tank.

Hunstein said she hopes Perdue, who will soon appoint Sears' replacement, taps a lawyer with vast experience in Georgia's legal system and who has "good character and the courage to make difficult decisions."

For her part, she said she will seek to follow Sears' lead and try to continue building on the rapport among the court's justices. She called herself, with a laugh, a "trailblazing consensus-builder."

"I think consensus is very important - not just with my colleagues on the court but with judges throughout the state," she said.

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