Thursday, December 4, 2008

State Budget Crisis Threatens Access to Civil Justice System

Budget shortfalls in Georgia have forced superior courts statewide to eliminate the use of senior judges, burdening already overloaded court dockets. Injured plaintiffs that rely on the civil justice system are likely to be victims of these cuts.

Senior judges are retired superior court judges who serve as needed to resolve backlogs of cases and preside over trials. They have been used with increasing frequency as caseloads around the state have increased.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Melvin Westmoreland criticized the cuts: “It’s unfortunate the State’s mismanagement of funds has brought to a halt the most fiscally responsible way to deal with the shortage of full-time judges available to handle increased civil filings and criminal prosecutions. As a result the county jails will become even more crowded and cases will move slower through the system.”

While criminal litigants can often take advantage of speedy trial demands to move their cases through the court system, civil litigants have no such rights and cases can drag on for years before reaching trial. At least one judicial district has temporarily suspended all civil trials because of crowded dockets.

Injured plaintiffs are placed in a particularly difficult position when they are unable to have their day in court, especially when their injuries have prevented them from working. The insurance companies that are ultimately responsible for paying the plaintiff's damages, on the other hand, are likely to benefit from increasingly desperate injured parties who are willing to settle for less than the true value of their case because they cannot afford to face financial ruin while waiting years to present their case to a jury.

Contributed by John D. Hadden
Turkheimer & Hadden, LLC

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