Courts news

Judges want it, the sheriff wants it, attorneys want it, elected officials want it: everyone seems to be in agreement that the sooner Catoosa County establishes a state court, the better.

On Tuesday, Aug. 5, Bob Bray, executive director of the Atlanta-based Council of State Court Judges, presented the results of a state court feasibility study to Catoosa County commissioners.

“Superior courts often are overloaded,” he said. “While state courts are of limited jurisdiction, they can alleviate the pressure on superior courts and afford a faster way for misdemeanor cases to be heard.”

Unlike probate judges, who are not required to be trained attorneys and member of the State Bar, state court judges must be veteran lawyers, expert in criminal and civil law, and meet the same requirements as superior court judges.

It is due to the differences of legal complexity that cases assigned to state courts can move more quickly from start to finish than those more serious offenses that must be heard in superior court.

Bray said state courts offer quicker and faster access to justice. That leads to confidence from members of the bar and law enforcement to bring all criminal offenses below the grade of felony to trial — many charges are now being dropped due to a lack of time and resources to prepare a case for trial.

Superior court judge Ralph Van Pelt supports the creation of a state court for Catoosa County for the reasons noted by Bray.

Describing recent jury trials that required a full week’s time in the courtroom and saying more are scheduled for later this year, Van Pelt said, “If I’m bogged down in a case like those, I’m not going to deal with a speeding ticket.”

The creation of a state court allows for a different avenue for the prosecution and sentencing of defendants. Since State Court judges are trained to be experts in traffic, misdemeanor and general civil laws, cases will be disposed of at a faster rate than in other venues with higher conviction rates. Law enforcement officers start to increase the issuance of traffic citations because of the quicker times to disposition.

Catoosa County may see a decrease in the average time-to-disposition of civil and misdemeanor cases. Currently all general civil and the vast majority of misdemeanor cases are assigned to superior court. The complexities, legal priorities and time constraints on felony cases, actions for equitable relief, child support and domestic relations cases, impede and limit the time that the superior court has available to hear the general civil and misdemeanor cases.

Source: Catoosa County State Court Feasibility Study, August 2014

Court records show that between 2008 and 2012, the average number of cases filed annually in Catoosa County superior, probate and municipal courts included roughly 2,002 traffic cases in addition to filings of serious traffic cases such as DUI and vehicular second-degree homicide. While a state court would not take cases from the municipal courts, it could alleviate caseload pressure in probate court by also assuming jurisdiction over traffic and misdemeanor cases — and free the superior court docket for more serious cases and trials.

“The county could support a judge now, “Bray said. “I wouldn’t be surprised that within six year you’ll come back and ask for an additional (state court) judge.”

While there would be an initial start-up cost to establish a new court, it should quickly become self-sufficient and could within a few years become a new source of revenue (from fines and fees collected) for county government.

“Overall, it might cost $500,000 to staff and equip a state court,” Bray said. “But a Catoosa County State Court could generate more than $1 million — similar courts in other counties are generating as much as $2.5 million a year.”

Walker County, which has no interstate that generates a high volume of traffic citations, regularly collects $1 million annually in judge Billy Mullinax’s state court.

“But this is not about money,” Bray said. “State courts are about accountability, providing special services (mental health, DUI, veterans and domestic courts) and speedy justice.”

The county’s costs to house inmates awaiting trial, and build the jail cells to hold them, would drop with shortened time between being charged and going to court.

“Cost avoidance needs to be included when the benefits and costs are calculated,” county commission chairman Keith Greene said. “Not only would the court generate revenue, it would help avoid the $42 daily cost to house an inmate by lessening our jail population.”

Catoosa County sheriff Gary Sisk voiced several reasons he supports the county adding a state court to its legal system.

“Misdemeanor cases many have someone incarcerated 60-90 days awaiting trial,” he said. “We average 200-250 inmates each day and we’re a 248-bed facility. If they’re in on felony charges, it may be several years before their case can be adjudicated.”

Rather than lock someone charged with a felony in the county jail, the sheriff said many are released on bail and commit new crimes while awaiting trial on their initial charges.

And it is not only freeing space that Sisk says is important. Having a specialty court, like a state court, means particular programs can be introduced to deal with specific problems that have the potential to reduce recidivism.

Public defender David Dunn has been an advocate for Catoosa County gaining a state court for years.

“We have a pressing need,” he said. “It is hard to quantify but very real that the multi-purpose superior court it trying to do everything. One effect of that is the dilution of time and effort focused on felony cases.

“What you’d see is the district attorney’s office could move felony cases along more quickly. It is not just one, but four counties (Dade, Catoosa, Chattooga and Walker) that make up the Lookout Mountain Superior Court Judicial Circuit.”

State courts are county-specific, Dunn said, meaning a Catoosa County state court could set its own docket calendar and not be required to coordinate with court activity in any of the other three counties in the circuit.

“Arraignments can be held on Saturday,” he said. “That can benefit working folks who won’t have to take a day off to go to court because they have traffic or minor charges.”

Judge Van Pelt said another reason he favors introducing a state court for the county is because there are certain actions that a magistrate judge cannot do, actions that only a superior court judge. That can become a problem when the judge is presiding over court in another county.

Having a state court could alleviate that issue, he said, because superior court judges can designate a state court judge to act in their stead for misdemeanor cases.

“Essentially, you gain a full time superior court judge when you have a state court in your county,” he said.

District attorney Herbert “Buzz” Franklin said his office and assistant district attorneys would benefit from adding a Catoosa County state court to the circuit.

“This county accounts for 40 percent to 50 percent of the case load in the circuit, cramming a whole lot of cases into a limited period of time,” he said. “You’re looking for justice in every case, and the flow of cases will be improved.”

Tom Weldon, who represents Ringgold in the state legislature, said having a state court will help everyone in Catoosa County and the General Assembly may by local law create such a court at the county’s request.