Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Georgia's chief justice: Because of bad economy, 'people will need access to justice now more than ever'


Editor's note: Leah Ward Sears, chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, on Wednesday delivered her last State of the Judiciary address. Appointed in 1992, she was the first woman to serve on the court. She became chief justice in 2005, the first African American woman in the nation to achieve that rank. She is retiring from the court when her term as chief justice expires on June 30. Here are excerpts from Wednesday's speech:

The judicial system's budget is less than 1 percent of the overall state budget, but we play a huge role in protecting the safety and security of Georgia citizens. Unfortunately, like others in state government, we have had to slash our budget to the bone. We have reduced personnel and cut our expenditures. Before this economic downturn, this state's appellate courts were well on our way toward unveiling an electronic filing system to make all our courts more accessible to people throughout the state. Such a system is a minimum requirement in this 21st century. Unfortunately, we have had to put that on indefinite hold.

We are deeply concerned, as you are, about the present financial situation and its effect on Georgians. We are particularly troubled about its impact on the delivery of justice to our citizens. Even in good economic times, the administration of justice is difficult to fulfill given the sheer volume and complexity of problems Georgians bring to their courthouses. Because of the effects of the nation's bad economy, people will need access to justice now more than ever. We already see this happening. The number of mortgage foreclosure cases in Georgia is at an all time high. Debt collection has increased dramatically. We may also begin to see an increase in other types of problems that typically escalate during tough economic times, such as crime, child abuse, domestic violence and substance abuse.

We are frequently reminded that government cannot do everything. And that is true. Government cannot do everything, and in times like these, government cannot afford to do everything. But there are some things that only government can do, and these things it must do well. Administering justice under the law is a function that only government can fulfill.

No doubt you have heard what other states' judicial systems are now doing to cope with our nation's troubled economy. Some states have closed their courthouses a few days a month. New Hampshire has cut back on the number of jury trials it holds. Several states, including Utah, are leaving judgeships vacant following retirements, including a few who have vacancies on their Supreme Courts. These are drastic steps. They will deny justice to many. In Georgia, we cannot afford to go down this path.

Nevertheless, I am confident that even in the face of economic turbulence, the future of our judiciary is as bright and solid and undaunted as is the bedrock optimism of our people. After all, we are Americans. And we are Georgians. That means that, working with you and the Governor, we will be bold. We will learn to do more with less. And for the safety and security of our state, we will endure, and we will prevail.

That is in large part because Georgia is fortunate. This state's judges are among the best in the nation. I am honored to have stood with them all these years. Like me, many have devoted their careers to guaranteeing that all citizens of our state receive fair and impartial justice. I will miss being a part of "the brotherhood". And I will miss all of you.

I am proud that when I step down, I will leave behind – according to a recent national study – the No. 1 most productive Supreme Court in the country. That same study ranked Georgia's high court as one of the five best state Supreme Courts in the nation, based not only on productivity but also on national influence and judicial independence. The Georgia Court of Appeals also has been ranked among the top five appellate courts in the number of opinions issued per judge.

I am also proud that Georgia has a state trial court system that works hard to ensure that all people have access to justice, no matter their status in life. Today, thanks to your support, Georgia is taking the lead with drug courts and mental health courts. This past year, both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges cited the work of Georgia's drug courts as a model for the nation.

I am also proud of the work of the Georgia Supreme Court Commission on Children, Marriage and Family Law. As you know, I have long been a proponent that "children do better with parents together." This is not just another do-good campaign unrelated to crime or justice. As a judge, I have seen daily the effects on our courts, not to mention our society, of family dissolution.

There is much sociological data that now suggests that children who grow up in healthy, intact families are less likely to engage in criminal behavior, and are more likely to have productive lives that never lead them to the inside of a courtroom. That's why marriage continues to be the most pro-child institution and antipoverty program we have.

As to the Court's future, my prayer is that whoever the Governor appoints to replace me would build on the progress the Supreme Court of Georgia has already made. My prayer is that the next Justice would be a fair, honest, upright person of the highest integrity, a man or woman who would walk in the same shoes as a Logan Bleckley, Joseph Lamar, Charles Weltner or Norman Fletcher.

I suppose my failure as Chief Justice was my inability to get our state's judges a much-needed raise – a raise they have not had in more than a decade. Many of you here worked hard for that goal, and I thank you. When our economy improves, for the sake of this state's judicial system, I urge you to renew that effort.

I came to the Supreme Court quite young. I determined some time ago to leave before I was too old. It has been a privilege to serve here. But the court, like most institutions, needs constant replenishment with people who are not comfortable with its ways. It is time I moved on.

As to my future, my so-called "retirement" at 53 years old is by no means an end for me. Rather it's a beginning. A rebirth. A launching of a new adventure. I don't know exactly yet what it will be, but like you, I am a public servant at heart. My life has been driven by a desire to do what I can to make things better for all people. And as long as God blesses me with health and well-being, I will continue to serve in some capacity. I am so proud of this state. I am so very proud to be a Georgian. And I am proud of all of you. God bless and comfort you. God bless Georgia. And God bless America.


Editor's note: Hello, Georgia! Chilly today, right? And this is the Deep South. Speaking of the South, one item that never loses its appeal among readers is the Civil War. True, it's been over with for 144 years, but many families, whether Blue or Gray, still honor their ancestors who fought the war. Georgia Online News Service writer Bill Hendrick writes today about a new book that profiles many of the soldiers from Georgia who fought in the conflict. It's not exactly breaking news, but it's fascinating.

On the legislative front lines – in a war that's often uncivil – Maggie Lee reports on consumer issues in the first of two articles. Today's story focuses on Georgia Power's pay-now-get-electricity-later plan. And today's Soapbox is by Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears. She warns: "Even in good economic times, the administration of justice is difficult to fulfill given the sheer volume and complexity of problems Georgians bring to their courthouses. Because of the effects of the nation's bad economy, people will need access to justice now more than ever."

Finally, I was intrigued by Sen. Eric Johnson's bill to make school vouchers available to just about everyone in Georgia. My take? At the heart of Johnson's bill is the belief that public education can't be fixed. I disagree, and argue that we should stop savaging school spending and focus on proven remedies, such as expanding pre-K.

One of our most popular features is proving to be Soapbox, and its editor is David Beasley, who for many years was the op-ed editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. If you have an opinion piece on a subject of importance to Georgians, or a suggestion of a topic we should explore, send it to Beasley at david.beasley@georgiaonlinenews.org.

As always, send your comments and suggestions to john.sugg@georgiaonlinenews.org or call 800-891-3459. The Georgia Online News Service is being offered free for a limited time. We don't believe quality journalism has to disappear because of the economy or the dismal state of many newspapers. Your opinion on how we're doing – and what other content we could provide – is very important to us.


Today's GONSO

New book chronicles Civil War from viewpoint of ordinary soldiers

by Bill Hendrick
Unlike most of the tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War, William G. Delony finally returned to his roots and is buried in a marked grave in Athens' historic Oconee Hills Cemetery, just off the campus of the University of Georgia.

Delony, who graduated with honors from UGA in 1846, is profiled in a new book, "Faces of the Confederacy," authored by Ronald S. Coddington, who earned his degree from UGA in 1985.

Coddington, now art director for USA Today, didn't set out to profile Delony, who died in a Union hospital after the Battle of Gettysburg and was buried in Washington, D.C., until reinterred in Oconee Hills.

Indeed, Delony is just one of 77 Confederate soldiers, including many from Georgia, who're pictured and profiled in Coddington's new and meticulously researched book.

Full Story

Only those who hate schools would vouch for vouchers

by John Sugg
Thank you, Sen. Eric Johnson. The Georgia Assembly was on the verge of not having any major irrelevancy to distract us from the crises brought on by Gold Dome mismanagement. Gays? Guns? Abortion? Damn little meat left to pick on those sacred cows. But just in the nick of time, Sen. Johnson arrived with a definitely-not-needed bill sure to fire up the state's emotions.

The issue is education, something we're all fretting about. Johnson's remedy – in the sense that sticking your hand in a blazing inferno will remedy your concern about a mosquito bite on one of your fingers – is vouchers.

Full Story

Georgia Power's pay-in-advance funding tops consumer issues at Legislature

by Maggie Lee
The threat of bigger power bills during a recession is shocking Georgia's most prominent consumer watchdog, yet the plan to finance new nuclear power plants is just the first consumer item on a legislative agenda that may put sub-prime mortgage brokers in the dog house and muzzle some tax preparers.

"The consumers are going to be footing the bill for prepaying the financing costs plus getting the kick in the gut of paying the construction costs after the thing comes online," according to Allison Wall, executive director of consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch, one of the main opponents of the Georgia Nuclear Energy Financing Act.

Full Story

SOAPBOX

Georgia's chief justice: Because of bad economy, 'people will need access to justice now more than ever'

From a speech by Judge Leah Ward Sears: The judicial system's budget is less than 1 percent of the overall state budget, but we play a huge role in protecting the safety and security of Georgia citizens. Unfortunately, like others in state government, we have had to slash our budget to the bone. We have reduced personnel and cut our expenditures. Before this economic downturn, this state's appellate courts were well on our way toward unveiling an electronic filing system to make all our courts more accessible to people throughout the state. Such a system is a minimum requirement in this 21st century. Unfortunately, we have had to put that on indefinite hold.
Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
There's little conversation between Georgia and Obama administration
by Tom Baxter
Lenders and lawyers among those targeted by consumer legislation
by Maggie Lee
Brits are wrong by not serving squirrel with most important meal of the day
by Larry Wilkerson
Sonny Perdue's message to Georgia Historical Society: Drop dead
by Todd Groce

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