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Court cuts won't hurt Newton

COVINGTON -- A proposal to cut 19 Superior Court judge positions by State Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, would not affect the Alcovy Judicial Circuit covering Newton and Walton counties.

The majority whip proposed legislation this week that would reduce the number of Superior Court judges from 205 to 186 in an effort to save money as the General Assembly grapples with how to make $1.1 billion in budget cuts for fiscal year 2011.

Seabaugh said Thursday that he looked at caseloads in all 49 judicial circuits to determine which should have positions eliminated, and the Alcovy Circuit is not one of them, despite the fact that a fifth judgeship was recently added to the circuit. Current District Attorney Ken Wynne was appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue to fill the seat but is not expected to be sworn in until July.

"I think Alcovy is No. 1 in terms of the total number of dockets filed per judge. (Alcovy) is being held up as being the most efficient when it comes to the amount of work per judge," Seabaugh said. "Y'all are being held up as an example of 'They can do it.'"

Seabaugh said eliminating 19 judges would save the state between $13 million and $14 million, taking into account the assistant district attorney, assistant public defender and secretary positions that go along with each judgeship.

The average workload for a Superior Court judge is 3,200 cases. The judgeships Seabaugh proposes to be eliminated are those averaging 1,200 cases per judge, except for those with only two judges per circuit.

"In this budget atmosphere, nobody is exempt from cuts. If we can find significant savings in areas where we can consolidate, those are cuts we won't have to make to education. This is an initial proposal. I'm asking for input from the courts to ensure that the right judgeships are eliminated," Seabaugh said.

Chief Superior Court Judge John Ott of the Alcovy Circuit said he hasn't yet read Seabaugh's bill, but noted that the court system is overburdened.

"I don't know how one branch of government can take away from another branch. If you envision our court system like an emergency room at a hospital that has just been told there is an accident out on the highway, it wouldn't make much sense to cut the doctors at the emergency room," Ott said. "We're backed up and to talk about reducing the number of judges under the guise of efficiency doesn't make much sense.

"There's a long distance between introducing a bill and actually getting it passed. I'll wait to see how much traction it's got before I start getting overly concerned. I know they're in a hard spot trying to figure out the budget," he added.

The Court of Appeals and Supreme Court of Georgia have had their budgets slashed by more than 10 percent, but the Superior Court system has seen only a 2.8 percent decrease in its budget, Seabaugh said. The number of Superior Court judges has increased each year for the past several budget cycles, he added.

"This is a delicate matter. I understand that these are good individuals doing a good job in a worthwhile place. However, we in the General Assembly are bound by the constitution to only spend the amount of money the taxpayers send in. We've made significant cuts in many agencies and this is one area that just hasn't approached the level of what many other agencies have done," Seabaugh said.

Thus far, reaction from the court system has not been encouraging, he said, but added, "I have received a lot of encouraging comments from people who say it's refreshing to see someone standing up and telling the truth of where we are instead of trying to sweep it underneath the rug or trying to punt it to next year."