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Bench trials in divorce cases, six-person civil juries and a consolidated family court system could become reality in Georgia if the Blue Ribbon Commission on the Judiciary gets its way. The 18-member commission, charged by the Georgia Supreme Court in 1999 with considering how court structure and organization can improve the dispensing of justice, on Monday issued a series of recommendations. The commission, appointed by Chief Justice Robert Benham, is made up primarily of lawyers and judges. But the commission’s report is only a start. “Reports of this kind don’t usually cause immediate changes,” Commission Chairman Hardy Gregory Jr., a former state supreme court justice, observed in the report’s foreword. “However, they can lay the foundation for gradual change over time. We hope some of the ideas expressed here may have the strength to serve as such a foundation.” The report is filed as a public document with the Georgia Supreme Court, according to commission member Linda A. Klein, a partner with Gambrell & Stolz. She says commission members are encouraged to publicize it to the Legislature. Also, she says the committees of the State Bar of Georgia may take up the gauntlet for issues they support. “It’s now a public document for those that wish to use it as they see fit, as a discussion point or as the beginning of a discussion point,” she says. To become effective, these changes require implementation by the state supreme court or the Legislature. Many also require funding. BENCH TRIALS FOR DIVORCES? Commission member Norman L. Underwood, a partner at Troutman Sanders, says he and other commission members tried not to recommend dramatic changes, instead focusing on reasonable, incremental changes that have a chance of being implemented. Underwood acknowledges that one particular recommendation will generate controversy: that divorce cases get bench trials rather than jury trials. “While the demand for a jury trial is often no more than a ploy in settlement negotiation, one result of the demand is to crowd the court’s docket,” the commission’s report said. “Domestic relations cases constitute roughly 43 percent of all cases decided by the Superior Courts and 70 percent of all civil cases, so the commitment of resources, both judicial and public, to jury trials in these cases is substantial.” The large number of cases, says Underwood, makes it impractical to consider jury trials a fundamental right in a divorce case. Most other states, he adds, resolve divorces with bench trials. Another recommendation — that civil juries be made up of six persons instead of 12 — also may spark discussion. “I personally was opposed to that,” Underwood says. “My own view is that in major civil cases … the 12-person jury will provide [or] guarantee a more balanced result.” But he adds that he respects the view of the majority of the commission, which wants to halve the number of jurors to save time and money. The commission, Underwood says, “felt the reliability of six-person juries had been proven.” DRUG COURT CALENDARS In a separate recommendation, the commission lobbied for the state supreme court to amend the Uniform Rules to encourage the creation of Drug Court calendars and Family Courts in jurisdictions that want them. According to the report, changes in Drug Court are necessary because “[t]he relentless pressure of illegal drugs in our society is producing a criminal caseload that is extracting a personal toll on our judges and on our trial courts of general jurisdiction.” The Macon and Brunswick Circuits already have implemented a specialized Drug Court calendar, where an adjudication of a defendant’s guilty plea is delayed contingent upon the person successfully completing a Drug Court program. The program requires regular appearances before the court, drug testing, treatment and counseling, and is 40 to 45 percent successful, according to the report. The commission also cited the success of Fulton County’s family court pilot project, and recommended that the high court amend its rules to allow creation of family courts. That project transfers all ancillary cases involving the same family — such as divorce and juvenile matters — to the same court and the same judge, giving the family a sense of continuity and providing better coordination with social services agencies. The report also recommended, though not for immediate implementation, the formation of a Surrogates’ Court. That court would have exclusive jurisdiction over all family-related issues, including divorce, child custody, probate of wills and estate administration that now are handled by four separate courts. “The hope is by consolidating all those domestic issues in one court, the families will not feel as fragmented as they do now,” says DeKalb Juvenile Court Judge Gregory A. Adams, also a commission member. EQUITY CASES Commission members also recommended shifting jurisdiction in divorce and equity cases from the Georgia Supreme Court to the Court of Appeals. The rationale was to give family-related cases a single appellate forum, and to resolve the confusion over jurisdiction in equity cases. Equity cases are those in which the plaintiff seeks a remedy other than damages — an injunction, for example. But it is difficult to figure out which court has jurisdiction, because many equity cases also involve nonequity issues such as contract questions, says Underwood. These recommendations would narrow the state supreme court’s jurisdiction, but that’s something that has been suggested twice by prior commissions, in 1985 and 1989. Underwood says the necessary statutory changes are more likely to occur now because the Legislature has increased Court of Appeals judgeships. The commission also recommended funding for more judges. Other recommendations included: � Obtaining more state funding for indigent defense (most funding now comes from the counties); � Making electronic filing available statewide; � Making court system data available on the Internet; � Limiting jury service to one day or one trial, whichever is longer; � Studying and possibly increasing juror compensation, which now may not exceed $50 a day; � Appointing special masters to supervise discovery in complex cases; � Providing each judge with a law assistant; � Requiring all magistrate judges to be attorneys; and � Requiring all candidates for state and superior court judgeships to have 10 years of experience as an attorney. Commission Chairman Gregory, in making his report before the state’s high court on Monday, outlined the need for change, but also said the commission’s examination of the court system had “found more to praise than to condemn.”

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