Georgia's Chief Justice Says Budget Cuts Threaten "Basic Constitutional Rights" of Defendants

The Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court recently warned that cuts to the state budget are making it increasingly difficult for courts to carry out their constitutionally mandated duties. Chief Justice Carol Hunstein stated that the court’s backlog has grown as money has dwindled. “The consequences of these cuts … hit everyone, threatening the basic constitutional rights of civil litigants and criminal defendants as core court functions go by the wayside.” Death penalty cases, which are among the most expensive cases in the justice system, are frequently being delayed. Justice Hunstein noted that one superior court judge has 16 death penalty cases still pending, partly because of the elimination of funding for senior judges. “The need for justice does not diminish with a shrinking economy,” Hunstein said. “Indeed as our caseloads attest, it grows … our citizens suffer when business and personal disputes are not heard and resolved. Our public safety is at risk when crimes are not prosecuted, and criminals are not punished.” In Fulton County, there are currently 183 murder cases awaiting trial, half of which are more than a year old. Chief Judge Dee Downs said of the situation, “This isn’t justice. We’re losing the rule of law.” At the high court, the justices recently had to return a desperately needed copy machine because of budget cuts.

(S. McCaffrey, “Ga. chief judge says budget cuts threaten courts,” Danbury News Times, March 16, 2010; J. Galloway, “Georgia chief justice: Court systems on ‘edge of abyss,’ Atlanta Journal Constitution, March 16, 2010). See also Costs and DPIC’s recent report “Smart on Crime.” Georgia is one of the leading death penalty states with with 46 executions since 1976 and 103 inmates on death row. Judging by cost studies in many states, Georgia could save millions of dollars per year by not seeking the death penalty and could use those funds and judicial resources to close many murder cases and address civil matters, such as child custody cases, that have been put on hold.