Prospective North Georgia judges say current system inefficient, unfair

Gavel and scales

No matter who becomes Northwest Georgia's newest judge, he says he will make cases run faster and more fair.

In the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, which consists of Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties, civil cases and pretrial hearings for criminal cases do not have assigned judges. That means it's often unclear who will make the important legal rulings for or against you.

But when five local attorneys applied to replace Chief Judge Jon "Bo" Wood, each said the current setup can make for long, wasteful days. If you don't have a specific judge hearing your case, you might be one of 30 people trying to approach the bench in a given day. You can wait for hours, only to be told sometimes that you have to come back the next month.

What's more, some of the applicants to replace Wood said, the system in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit is open to manipulation. If you don't have a specific judge hearing your case, you can wait to go to court until you know you are going to argue before somebody who will be lenient toward you.

"Judge shopping," District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin called it in his application.

Franklin, David Dunn, Keith Edwards, Michael Giglio and Don Thompson will meet with the Judicial Nominating Commission in Atlanta on Thursday afternoon, when they will explain in 10-minute interviews why they think they will make a smart replacement for Wood. The JNC will then send a "short list" to Gov. Nathan Deal, who will also interview at least some of the candidates before appointing a new judge.

Wood, who retires at the end of the week, did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday. Neither did Superior Court judges Kristina Cook Graham or Brian House.

But Judge Ralph Van Pelt admitted the current court scheduling system can force people to wait in court for hours longer than they might with a more organized system. For civil cases, the lawyers on both sides of the issue are supposed to coordinate the best day to go to work.

The judges aren't looped into the process. On weeks set aside for those kinds of cases, the lawyers will write their names on a sign-up sheet outside the courtroom. The attorneys and their clients will then wait to be called before a judge. Sometimes, they wait all day. And even then, they might be told to come back when a judge has more time.

"Lawyers don't consult with other lawyers [from separate cases]," Van Pelt said. "They just throw things in a pile. And sometimes, the pile is too big."

Van Pelt said criminal cases don't quite work the same way. Cases are assigned to play out on certain weeks, and two of the circuit's four judges work those weeks. Once a list of trials is set, the judges and a court administrator decide which defendants will go before which judges.

But even then, lawyers can look at which judge is working a certain week and push for a continuance. They just have to argue they haven't had enough time to properly prepare for the case.

Dunn, the public defender for the circuit, said the court didn't need to assign cases to judges decades ago. There were fewer cases overall back then. And with fewer cases, lawyers and their clients could show up to court unscheduled, make their arguments and go home by the early afternoon.

As the list of civil cases grew over the years, however, the lack of planning made court days more chaotic.

For example, Giglio said he finished a civil case last week after trying to go before a judge two other times. For him, the wait is frustrating, but it's also part of his job. His client, however, had to skip work three times before his case was actually heard.

Giglio added that the current system allows lawyers to play games to make sure they go before their preferred judge. The experienced attorneys in north Georgia know each judge's tendencies - what kind of arguments and defendants he or she will show bias toward.

"The first thing I look at is the calendar and which judges are going to be there," Giglio said. "It's just looking out for your client. It's what you do."

Van Pelt said it's an open secret in the courthouse that lawyers pretend they aren't prepared for a hearing or a trial to avoid a judge they don't think will rule in their favor. But because a specific judge doesn't get a specific case, the games abound.

Other circuits assign each case to a specific judge as soon as a lawyer files the case with a clerk. Sometimes, the assignments are based on the party's last name. Other times, there's a random assignment. Van Pelt declined to say why cases aren't assigned in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, only adding that the system opens itself up to problems.

"If cases aren't assigned, a lawyer is going to advocate for their client," he said. "They're going to pull the available levers."

Thompson, a private lawyer from Summerville applying for Wood's job, said attorneys should no longer be allowed to make those moves.

"That's not an ethical thing to do," he said. "But that's something that can occur with a system like the one we have."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.