Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.
2000 GEORGIA LEGISLATURE: Bill would add full-time juvenile judges
Jeannie Scott Martin had been a lawyer only 10 months when she became a part-time Georgia Juvenile Court judge for eight largely rural counties southeast of Atlanta.
Although still something of a legal novice, Martin said she suddenly realized that she had been put in a position where her decisions were likely to affect children and their parents for the rest of their lives.
As a juvenile judge she had the power to remove a child from its parents during the crucial formative years because of possible neglect or abuse. Make the wrong decision, she said, and the child and parents could all suffer emotionally or physically for years to come.
"It was a great feeling, but it was a frightening feeling to know I had that power," said Martin, no longer a judge but now guardian ad litem in Gwinnett County Juvenile Court, appointed to watch out for the interests of children in court.
In Georgia, it is not unusual for law clerks to serve as juvenile judges. Law clerks generally are young lawyers who have recently passed the bar and work for judges researching the law to gain experience.
But a bill now under consideration in the state legislature would provide state funding for each of the 48 judicial circuits to pay for full-time juvenile judges.
Counties would still have to foot the bill for office space, a secretary and a law clerk. The legislation has passed the House and may be considered this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Gov. Roy Barnes has earmarked $6.4 million in his fiscal 2001 budget for the additional judges. Chief Justice Robert Benham of the Georgia Supreme Court has endorsed the proposal following a year-long study in 1996 by the court's Child Placement Project that showed that the complexity of juvenile cases were increasing beyond the ability of some judicial circuits to handle them.
In a recent speech to the General Assembly, Benham said, "No other budget item would produce the benefits to this state. It would allow us to remove dangerous juveniles from society and provide treatment and rehabilitation for thousands of salvageable young people. The courts must be able to safeguard children when parents cannot or will not."
Currently, in addition to law clerks serving as juvenile judges, local attorneys and Superior Court judges shoulder juvenile caseload. Counties that have full-time Juvenile Court judges are those around major metropolitan areas, such as Atlanta, Augusta, Macon and Columbus. It is in the rural counties where juvenile justice is seen as a part-time occupation.
According to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the practice is not that unusual, especially in largely rural states.
In Georgia, the reason for the current system is money, or a lack of it. Counties are responsible for funding juvenile courts because the General Assembly does not. Some of the smaller and poorer counties just don't have enough money and therefore don't have their own juvenile judges.
William Prior, chief Superior Court judge in the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, said the problem with the current system is not that major mistakes are made. Instead, he said, it's a matter of efficiency and providing qualified jurists to juveniles. "The old saying of justice delayed is justice denied is very true when it comes to juvenile courts," said Prior.
In Georgia, said Eric John, executive director of the state Council of Juvenile Court Judges, "juvenile courts are almost an afterthought."
But, said Kevin Guidry of Winder, a law clerk in the Piedmont Judicial Circuit and part-time juvenile judge, "juvenile judges in Georgia have a tremendous amount of power. I can terminate parental rights, and a Superior Court judge can't even do that. It's like a familial death sentence."
Prior said full-time juvenile judges would provide continuity to cases. "It's hard to deal with the fact that every time you come to court you see a different judge who may react in a different way," he said.
Full-time juvenile judges also would be able to focus exclusively on juvenile issues, according to Superior Court Judge G. Bryant Culpepper of the Macon Judicial Circuit. "Over the years Juvenile Court law has become rather complicated," said Culpepper, who handles juvenile cases in two of the counties in his circuit. "It is becoming increasingly difficult for Superior Court judges to devote enough time and resources to Juvenile Court."
According to John, there are 48 Superior Court judges statewide who exercise juvenile court jurisdiction in 93 of the state's 159 counties. But, there are only 47 full-time juvenile judges in Georgia and 61 part-timers.
Juvenile courts are not the place for novices, said Jeannie Scott Martin, who had more experience than most law clerks when appointed to the juvenile bench.
"Juvenile Court is completely different and should not be a training ground for anyone, judges or lawyers, because the decisions they are making are so important," she said.
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