Atlanta judicial leaders declare court 'emergency'

AP News
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Posted: Nov 19, 2009 9:54 AM

Georgia's biggest court system has warned that a 2010 Fulton County proposal that cuts $53 million from the judicial budget could force them to shut down the courthouse, jeopardize death penalty cases and slash as many as 1,000 jobs.

Fulton County's judicial leaders declared an "economic state of emergency" and warned Wednesday that the cuts, which amount to about a fourth of Fulton County's judicial budget, would lead to drastic changes at the Fulton County Jail, the sheriff's office along with prosecutors, judges and public defenders.

"This is not something you can adjust to," said Doris Downs, the county's chief superior court judge. "This is going to dismantle the justice system."

The proposed cuts, which were released last week, are part of a spending plan that would slash the county's funding by $148.2 million in 2010. Downs and other judicial leaders said the cuts came as a surprise to them and urged commissioners to rethink the spending plan before it plunges the legal system into a "crisis."

Fulton County Commission Chair John Eaves said the spending plan is still tentative and that commissioners will approve final changes in January. But he said that the judicial system will have to shoulder a portion of the cuts along with other county agencies.

"We have to spread those costs around many departments that we fund, including the justice system," he said. "I wouldn't say it's a state of emergency, but there are tough decisions that have to be made and I'm hopeful we'll work out something that's reasonable given our financial shortfall."

Courthouses around the nation have been squeezed by budget cuts, and Georgia judicial leaders hit hard by cuts have threatened to fight back. Faced with an order from the governor to slash spending by 25 percent in June, state judicial leaders warned it would launch a legal challenge to stave off the cuts before deciding against it.

Downs and District Attorney Paul Howard said they don't expect to fight the cuts in court and that they're hopeful they can broker a compromise. But Howard said the results would be "disastrous" if the proposed cuts are left intact.

Among the possible aftershocks, said Downs, is a more aggressive early release program to lower jail expenses. She also said the cuts could slow the flow of criminal and civil caseloads.

Howard said the cuts will force the county judicial system to fire between 425 and 980 employees, a figure which Eaves disputed. Howard also said the cuts could force the county to shutter the courthouse a few days next year and force prosecutors to take a "second look" at many capital cases to see if they are financially feasible.

"These are cuts," said Downs, "that we cannot withstand."