Beyond debates on overhauling medical malpractice, reforming the juvenile justice system and balancing the budget, Georgia lawmakers have held judiciary housekeeping legislation on track.
Bills that would regulate prosecutors in probate courts, raise contempt-of-court fines and create new judgeships had already passed one chamber of the General Assembly before Thursday’s "crossover day," by which bills must have garnered approval from the state House or Senate or die for the session.
Senate Bill 120 would allow probate court judges in counties that do not have state courts to request district attorneys prosecute misdemeanor criminal cases, rather than have only the law enforcement officers involved in the cases bring them to court. Under the bill, if the district attorney declines to prosecute due to a lack of resources, the county commission may hire a private attorney to prosecute.
The state Council of Probate Court Judges backs the bill, which is sponsored by Sen. John Crosby, R-Tifton, who is a retired judge.
Current state law allows probate court judges to request that district attorneys prosecute only traffic cases, said Cook County Probate Court Judge Chase Daughtrey, who is the council’s vice president.
"If the DA is unable to assist or refuses to assist, there is nothing that provides for what’s the next step," Daughtrey said. "I think we’d all feel better if this was clarified."
There are 80 counties without state courts, and many already contract with private attorneys to prosecute traffic and misdemeanor cases in their probate courts, Daughtrey said. Those jurisdictions that don’t instead allow law enforcement officers to present the state’s case. This approach is rife with problems, Daughtrey said.
"In rural circuits, especially, there are troopers covering three or four counties, and they have to take time away to go to court," he said. "Charges can get dropped because law enforcement is unable to appear. The judge can continue the case, but at a certain point, really that’s not fair for the defendant."
In 2001, Oconee County requested then- Attorney General Thurbert Baker’s opinion regarding the practice of hiring private prosecutors and received an unofficial one stating it was OK, Daughtrey said. The opinion is U2001-2.
SB 120 would essentially codify that opinion and establish qualifications, duties and responsibilities of prosecutors in probate courts. Daughtrey made a point to note that the bill would not require counties to hire private attorneys, but it would give them the option under the law.
SB 120 passed the Senate on Feb. 25 but remains a work in progress.
Douglas County District Attorney David McDade, chairman of the state District Attorneys’ Association’s legislative affairs committee, said prosecutors were concerned the bill would preclude them from their decision-making process involving prosecutions.
"We are working with the bill’s sponsor to address our concerns and have confidence in his commitment that our issues will be resolved," said McDade.
"We wanted it made clear that we participate in either providing prosecution services to that court or we have input in how the service is provided if it’s not us.
"We expect to be in support of the end result in the final version of this bill," McDade added.
Increasing contempt fines
Senate Bill 66, which passed the Senate on Feb. 11, would double contempt fines in superior and state courts from $500 to $1,000.
"This bill was brought to me by the superior court judges down in the Augusta circuit who thought they ought to be raised," said Senate Judiciary Non-Civil Committee Chairman Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, who is sponsoring the legislation. "They had not been changed in over 30 years."
The bill also would change the contempt statute for state court so that a judge could issue a fine and order jail time. The current law allows only one or the other punishment in state court, but superior court judges can levy both.
Stone said the measure garnered approval from the Judicial Council of Georgia and other judges. During committee hearings on the bill, supporters testified that increasing the fines would help state and superior courts better ensure parties in pro se cases and cases involving corporate litigants show up to proceedings and follow judges’ orders, Stone added.
The sponsor said he also fielded requests from probate and municipal courts for increased contempt fines but decided not to broaden his bill.
"We just didn’t feel that we needed to move on that just yet," said Stone. "Because of the different type of cases that come before superior and state courts, it’s warranted that they have a higher contempt fine. They tend to hear cases that have higher amounts at stake."
There are identical bills in the House and Senate that would add two new superior court judge seats. House Bill 451, whose main sponsor is Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, passed the House on Tuesday via a 170-0 vote. Smyre’s legislative district includes the Chattahoochee Circuit, which would receive one of the two new judges.
The other bill is Senate Bill 165, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Josh McKoon, R-Columbus. It passed the Senate Thursday in a 53-0 vote.
The Judicial Council in September voted to ask the Legislature to create two new judgeships in Chattahoochee and Oconee circuits based on their workloads and population. In 2011, the council requested new judgeships in Bell-Forsyth, Piedmont, Middle and Oconee circuits, but the Legislature only approved adding judges in Bell-Forsyth and Piedmont because of limited state funds.