Chief Justice Hugh Thompson, left, is introduced at the Legislature by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, center, and House Speaker David Ralston, for his State of the Judiciary address.
Chief Justice Hugh Thompson, left, is introduced at the Legislature by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, center, and House Speaker David Ralston, for his State of the Judiciary address. (John Disney/Daily Report)

During his annual address to lawmakers, Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh Thompson called for more of everything: more support for legal aid organizations, more interpreters in trial courts and more funding for the judiciary.

“As Georgia continues to grow in population and diversity, access to justice is a challenge requiring the commitment and hard work of us all,” Thompson said during the State of the Judiciary, which he delivered to a gathering of both chambers of the Georgia General Assembly on Wednesday morning.

“Georgia’s judicial system is sound, and it is strong—for those who can afford a lawyer,” he added.

According to Thompson, nearly 19 percent of the state population, about 2 million Georgians, live below the poverty line. The need for legal aid is amplified in rural areas, where a greater percentage of the poor reside and there are fewer lawyers. Six counties in Georgia have no lawyers at all, said Thompson.

“As a result of the lack of adequate legal services, our courts are seeing a growth in the number of people representing themselves,” he said. “Judges worry not only about clogged dockets as a result of these pro se litigants, but more importantly, about unfair trials and unjust results. … The reality is that poor people who represent themselves often lose.”

Thompson’s statements echo the high court’s recent ultimatum to Georgia lawyers to raise at least $1.8 million for legal aid or see a $50 hike in annual bar dues. That threat spurred the State Bar of Georgia’s Civil Legal Services Task Force to propose rules changes that would require lawyers to establish client trust accounts only at banks that offer competitive rates. Most of the funding for Georgia Legal Services Program and the Atlanta Legal Aid Society comes from grants from the State Bar Foundation, which are generated from interest on lawyers’ trust accounts. Since 2007, interest revenues on those accounts has dropped by more than 90 percent, Thompson said. The bar’s Board of Governors has yet to vote on the proposal.

Thompson also highlighted the need for more certified, trained interpreters as an obstacle to access to justice for all. He estimated that 500,000 Georgians do not speak English or speak only limited English. Meanwhile, Georgia has only 149 licensed interpreters, who collectively speak a dozen languages.

“That is not enough,” Thompson said. While the most frequently spoken language other than English is Spanish, courts around the state have found the need for interpreters to translate proceedings into Thai, Korean, Bosnian, Russian and Burmese, he said.

Justice Harold Melton, who chaired the Georgia Supreme Court’s Commission on Interpreters, later said recent efforts to recruit more interpreters include building contacts within foreign language programs at state universities and colleges. The commission also is continuing its work with the Administrative Office of the Courts on a pilot program that sets up remote interpreters in trial courts.

“We’re still trying to figure out where we have the best use for it,” Melton said. “At first, we were thinking in high population counties. Now, we’re looking at what type of court has the most need.”

Thompson’s only overt budget requests of the Legislature were for funding for two more staff attorneys at the high court and for full implementation of statewide e-filing at the trial court level. The Judicial Council of Georgia has asked the General Assembly to approve $52,000 for the current fiscal year ending June 30 and $208,000 for fiscal year 2015 to jump-start the stalled e-filing project.

House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee Chairman Rich Golick, a lawyer and Republican representing Smyrna, said the chief justice’s address was enlightening.

“The relative lack of legal services in rural areas is now clearly on the radar thanks to the chief’s focus on that issue,” Golick said.

“Additionally, the chief’s comments in general demonstrated welcome restraint in his not venturing into proactive policy pronouncements, signaling that he respects the separation of powers and the respective roles and responsibilities of the separate branches of government.”