New judge approved for Coweta Circuit

by W. Winston Skinner

The Judicial Council of Georgia has recommended that a new superior court judge be added to the five-county Coweta Circuit.

The council, headed by Chief Justice Hugh Thompson, met in Atlanta on Friday. The council reviewed requests for judges in the Coweta Circuit and Waycross Circuits, and — after reviewing caseload data — approved both.

Coweta Circuit was placed in the top priority for an additional judge in a unanimous vote by the council. Judge Quillian Baldwin, who is the chief judge for the Coweta Circuit, attended the meeting and spoke in favor of adding a new judgeship. “We had a number of people send in letters,” Baldwin noted.

The Judicial Council first must evaluate if a circuit should get a new judge. Then the council must determine the priority of each circuit’s request. “We certainly qualify to be” in the top spot, Baldwin said.

Baldwin, a former member of the Judicial Council, said there are several steps before the circuit gets another judge. The Georgia legislature must approve funding for the position and must set a date for the new post to become effective. Then the governor would have to appoint someone to the judge’s seat.

Decisions made by superior court judges “dramatically affect people’s lives and people’s businesses,” Baldwin said. Judges need to have not only a broad and deep understanding of the law but high character and common sense.

A judge also should be “a person who has a feel for people,” Baldwin said.

“I could probably work every day of the week and not get it all done,” Baldwin said. “We’re getting to the point where we need another judge.”

The Coweta Circuit includes the counties of Coweta, Carroll, Heard, Meriwether and Troup. In addition to Baldwin, judges serving the circuit are John Simpson, Dennis Blackmon, Jack Kirby, Bill Hamrick and Emory Palmer. Baldwin and Simpson both addressed the need for an additional judge in the circuit on Friday.

Coweta Superior Court Clerk Cindy Brown — addressing cases in Coweta County specifically — said the number of cases and the number of days of courts “has grown tremendously” in recent years.

Brown became a superior court clerk 13 years ago, after serving as a deputy clerk for several years. “The number of civil cases, as well as the number of criminal cases, has grown,” she said.

She said there were six weeks of court a year when she became clerk. “It’s grown to 26 weeks,” she said.

Simpson, a judge since 1997, said the caseload — and the population of the circuit — have both grown a great deal in that time. Current population of the circuit is 350,000 with expectations that the population will increase to 400,000 by 2020. Simpson said 2008 was the peak year for cases in the circuit with 20,000. That number has dropped to about 15,000 last year.

Baldwin said the circuit has been ranked near the top in terms of caseload among all the superior court circuits in the state. In 2011, the Coweta Circuit was the top circuit in the state in terms of total cases — which he noted means more cases than Atlanta or Cobb County or Augusta.

Simpson noted the district has also seen an increase in problem-solving courts in recent years. There is now a district-wide child support court program. There also is a drug court in Coweta County and a mental health court in Troup County. Problem-solving courts are proving effective but require “a lot more work and attention to the cases,” Simpson said.

The Administrative Office of the Courts calculates the Coweta Circuit should have 8.35 judges. Having an additional judge is important to make sure judges can “give the cases the proper attention,” Simpson said.

Both Simpson and Baldwin talked about how busy judges in the circuit are. This year they moved to a circuit-wide approach to cases, with judges being assigned specific cases and traveling throughout the circuit to hear testimony and examine evidence.

Judges travel in two-judge teams to the smaller counties of Heard and Meriwether during the year and then hear cases in the larger counties on an equal basis.

“I’m working harder than I have ever worked. I don’t mind working hard, but I don’t like to work so hard that I can’t keep up,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin was an attorney for years before becoming a judge. “Being a judge is really difficult. You have to look at it from a different perspective from the way a lawyer does.”

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