In a move that would have been impossible a few years ago, the state and superior courts of Fulton County have begun selecting their juries from the same pool, consolidating each court’s juror services division into one operation under the oversight of the superior court.
Superior Court Administrator Yolanda Lewis said the consolidation, which took effect June 3, will streamline operations and ensure that the judges on both courts have an ample supply of jurors.
Lewis said no staff positions were eliminated by the creation of the Fulton County Jury Services office, which will be under the direction of Phenix Gaston, until last week the superior court’s jury clerk.
"They’re already all in the same workplace up on the 7th floor anyway," said Lewis. "The state court was in the back of the room, and we were in front. Now we’ll be better able to serve the judges and not be worried about space constraints and how many have to go each court."
The combined jury pool is among several recommendations in a report released by the Fulton County Court Improvement Task Force, a panel of county lawmakers, legislators, attorneys and the chief judge of each court.
The new operation will be officially announced at a press conference Tuesday featuring task force members Superior Court Chief Judge Cynthia D. Wright, State Court Chief Judge John Mather, Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves, state Representative Wendell Willard and Duane Morris partner William Barwick, the former president of the State Bar of Georgia who chaired the task force.
The superior court had sought the consolidation for years, but former State Court Chief Judge Albert Thompson, who retired in 2010, steadfastly opposed the measure, concerned that the superior court’s criminal cases would siphon off state court panels.
Thompson’s successors as chief, Judge Patsy Porter and current Chief Judge Mather, were open to the idea as the courts struggled under tight budgets and Georgia’s heaviest caseload.
"I am looking forward to it," said Mather via email, noting that the move was facilitated by the Joint Governance Committee, a 10-member panel composed of five judges from each court.
Mather said he and Wright were in close consultation as the merger was worked out and the jury clerk selected.
"The courts are working extremely well together, and the concerns State Court had were addressed," wrote Mather. "There is a jury committee with judges from each court to address any issues that might arise."
"For the jurors it should be more efficient," Mather added. "No longer will they be subpoenaed for one court only to get tagged by the other court thereafter."
Lewis said the courts have also implemented an online system for jurors to submit requests for exemptions and deferrals and will begin paying jurors the same week they serve.
Gaston said the number of summonses sent out weekly has dropped sharply since judges began calling no-show jurors into court to explain their absences or face fines and possible jail time.
"We’re sending out about 4,800 summonses a week, down from about 6,000 a year or so ago," Gaston said.
An average of 200 to 500 jurors show up for duty each week, she said.
Other Task Force recommendations are still in the works, including a much-anticipated unified case-management system linking all the players of the county justice system, including the courts, Sheriff’s Department, district attorney and public defender.
The Odyssey Case Management is set to go live on July 8, Lewis said.