Judge Jeffery S. Malcom likened the backlog of court cases in the Northern Judicial Circuit to an elephant that he and his fellow judges plan to eat one bite at a time.
Malcom, who serves as chief judge for the Northern Judicial Circuit, said the circuit is holding extra trial weeks to make up for lost time caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Northern Judicial Circuit includes Elbert, Franklin, Hart, Madison and Oglethorpe counties.
Each of the three judges in the circuit, including Malcom, has one trial week at the term of court. The terms of court are usually the third Monday in May and the third Monday in November.
In a typical year, there are six trial weeks split between the three judges. As of September, judges in the circuit accumulated nine trial weeks. Kelli Paradise Smith, Oglethorpe County’s clerk of superior court and juvenile court, expects six more before the year’s end.
Smith said funds that Oglethorpe County received from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 are being used to pay jurors and bailiffs for their additional time. Malcom said ARPA funds also allowed the circuit to receive 100 extra senior judge days.
A senior judge is a judge who has retired and is appointed to senior status by the governor. Per Georgia law, any active judge can call upon a senior judge to serve in an emergency or when the volume of cases merits an additional judge.
Malcom said the additional help is making a difference in the circuit’s ability to resolve cases. He added that both misdemeanor and felony cases are being worked through, although priority is given to cases with someone in jail or a victim.
While Smith said she is unsure when the county’s backlog will be cleared, she emphasized that judges are mindful to prioritize felony cases.
“The judges are trying to get their jail cases and their most serious cases … resolved before minor misdemeanor and traffic cases,” Smith said.
Malcom said the circuit’s plan is to return to a pre-pandemic schedule in 2023.
“We are all working as hard as we can to address (the backlog),” Malcom said. “I think every group associated with the judicial branch, from law enforcement, to the DA, to the public defender, to us, to the clerks (are) doing as much as they can to get it done.”