In mid-2019, the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit should cease to be the only one of Georgia’s 49 judicial circuits without a separate juvenile court judge, the three Ogeechee Circuit Superior Court judges recently decided.
The circuit, which encompasses Bulloch, Effingham, Jenkins and Screven counties, has until now followed the older pattern of dividing juvenile cases among the Superior Court judges.
“The Court has collectively decided that the time is proper and ripe for the establishment of a separate, distinct and dedicated Juvenile Court for the Circuit,” Ogeechee Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge F. Gates Peed informed lawyers throughout the circuit with a Dec. 21 email.
The intention of the Superior Court judges is to move forward with a request through the state Council of Juvenile Court Judges and the Legislature so that state funding will be available beginning July 1, Peed stated.
As he noted, the state funding through the Council of Juvenile Court Judges must be used for juvenile court judges’ salaries. So the county governments will be asked to provide funding for the operation of the court.
“The maximum amount provided by the state is $100,000. It can only be used for judicial salary,” Peed said in an interview Friday. “So, all other costs for the operation of the Juvenile Court would be borne by the circuit, the four counties. We would expect that that budget would be divided between the four counties based on population.”
The Superior Court judges intend to appoint two part-time judges to preside over the new Juvenile Court and will establish an application and selection process for hiring them, Peed wrote. So his emailed announcement also served as a first notice to lawyers who may be interested serving as juvenile judges.
Over 500 cases
In delinquency cases, juveniles are children under age 17 when first accused of what for adults would be crimes. The new Juvenile Court would hear these cases, from the state Department of Juvenile Justice, and also cases involving the health and welfare of children handled by the county Departments of Family and Children Services.
When asked, Peed gave a rough estimate – he said it was little more than a guess – that the Ogeechee Circuit Superior Courts handle around 500 or 600 juvenile cases each year. This tracks with an estimated range of 500-700 cases cited by an Ogeechee Circuit Public Defenders Office attorney in June.
The anticipated $100,000 would be annual, continuing state funding. So the current intent of the Ogeechee Circuit Superior Court judges is to pay the two part-time Juvenile Court judges each a $50,000 salary. These could be private-practice attorneys who keep their practices while serving part-time as judges, Peed said.
In Friday’s interview, Peed spoke of this and other potential facts about the Juvenile Court in terms of intent, while emphasizing that much remains to be decided.
“The announcement was kind of vague but at the same time providing sufficient information to let people know that this was what our thought process was, this is what our process is going to be, but there are still things developing like an application process, like a budget for the court,” he said. “Those things are unknown at this time.”
Until the Juvenile Court is operating, the Superior Court judges will continue to hear juvenile cases as they do now. Peed hears the juvenile cases in Effingham; Judge Michael T. Muldrew, the juvenile cases in Bulloch; and Judge Lovett Bennett Jr., the juvenile cases originating in Jenkins and Screven counties.
Asked why the Superior Court has decided to make this change now, Peed said, “Just in our collective judgment we thought that it was time to do that.”
City, CASA sought
Local advocacy to establish a Juvenile Court surfaced last spring after previous Ogeechee Circuit Chief Judge William E. Woodrum Jr. announced his retirement, which took effect July 31. While a state nominating panel was taking applications for Gov. Nathan Deal to appoint a judge to Woodrum’s unexpired Superior Court term, Statesboro City Council authorized a letter requesting a judge who would back a juvenile court’s creation.
Child Advocacy Services of Southeast Georgia, better known as CASA for its volunteer Court-Appointed Special Advocates, also submitted a letter of support for adding a juvenile court.
Deal eventually appointed Bennett, who began hearing cases in September. Muldrew, during and after his 2016 election to the Superior Court bench, had expressed support for creating a juvenile court. Peed, now the circuit’s most experienced full-time judge, became chief judge upon Woodrum’s retirement.
In an interview last July, Eric J. John, executive director of Georgia’s Council of Juvenile Court Judges, confirmed that the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit was the only one where the Superior Court judges still handled all the juvenile cases, without any separate juvenile court judges. When the state launched the funding program in 2000, about 14 circuits did not have juvenile court judges, he said.
“When that funding passed, little by little, all those 14 circuits except one started to appoint juvenile court judges and then to draw down some of the state funding for it,” John said then.
But John also acknowledged that creating a new court would not be “one single decision” and that courtroom space and personnel are among the challenges and potential expenses.
Challenges and costs
“There are different challenges depending on how you do it,” Peed said Friday. “One of the biggest challenges in the court, period, is scheduling, and we’re in a circuit where you have two counties that have two courtrooms and two counties that have one courtroom.”
Bulloch and Effingham have two Superior Court courtrooms each currently in use, but also have much larger populations than Jenkins and Screven. Other rooms, such as grand jury rooms and State Court or Municipal Court rooms could be considered, he said.
Another challenge will be scheduling official court reporters, who are not easy to come by, Peed said. These uniquely skilled individuals transcribe what is said in court for the official record.
Having a separate court will also place additional demands on the counties’ clerks of court and their staffs, and possibly on the sheriffs’ departments for transporting juveniles, he said.
The judges’ travel, their continuing education, office supplies, telephone service and a court reporter are all examples of things that the state grant cannot be spent for, Peed said.
“We’re developing a budget, and then once we develop the budget that we think is reasonable under the circumstance, that budget will be taken to the various counties to get their approval of the budget, their agreement to provide it,” Peed said.
The Superior Court hopes to have a budget and a selection process for potential Juvenile Court judges in hand within in the next month or two, he said. When the application is ready, another notice will be sent to attorneys throughout the circuit. The hope is to have one or two judges selected by April to begin preparing for the launch of the court July 1.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.