The state’s top judge likens Georgia’s court system to many families during the recent economic downturn: It has had to cut expenses and learn to live within its means.
“We’re in real need of funding for just the basic things,” Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh Thompson said. “We don’t have a lot of frills out there anymore.”
Thompson began his four-year term as chief justice last month, succeeding former Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, who remains on the court. Former Gov. Zell Miller, who first appointed Thompson to the court in March 1994, swore him in as chief justice.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Thompson said, he didn’t come to the chief justice position with a special project or agenda that he wants to push. As leader of the Supreme Court and head of the state judicial branch, he said he hopes to promote cohesiveness and uniformity in the administration of the law in the state.
“It’s my hope to bring the legal community together as best I possibly can and achieve consensus and unanimity as best we can to get people within the court, and also the people in the executive and legislative branches, to all work together toward delivering fair and equal justice,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The economic difficulties for the state’s judiciary don’t represent a new struggle. The judicial branch narrowly avoided a constitutional showdown with the executive branch over cuts in 2009. Hunstein lobbied the governor and state lawmakers against further cuts.
The high court justices haven’t had a pay raise in more than a decade and would like to see a bump in the near future, especially as the volume and complexity of the cases they handle continue to grow, Thompson said.
“I see people and I say, ‘You pay taxes in Georgia, don’t you?’ and they say, ‘Yeah.’ I say, ‘Well, you’re getting a real bargain out of me. I want you to know that,”’ he said with a chuckle.
The focus now is on incrementally building back as the economy rebounds, Thompson said. For example, at the Supreme Court, which has lost a number of staffers who weren’t replaced in recent years, the Legislature has provided funding for a new death penalty clerk to start in January. The court system also is working on implementing technology to make the courts more efficient and ease the pain of reduced staffing, Thompson said.
He added that the courts must be prepared to deal with a growing and increasingly diverse population in the state. Already, ensuring that courts have enough interpreters is a challenge, Thompson said, and the next challenge will be making sure people continue to have meaningful access to the courts.
“The courts are really like a highway — we have to handle whatever the traffic is,” he said.
Georgia Supreme Court chief justices serve four-year terms, frequently on the heels of serving as presiding justice under the previous chief justice. Once a chief justice’s term is up, he or she can retire or can return to a regular spot on the court. Thompson finds himself in the relatively unusual position of having two previous chief justices — Hunstein and Robert Benham — serving on the high court alongside him.
“It’s very comforting to me to have two former chiefs actually sitting,” he said. “They offer advice, but they are, I think, respectful of me and of the office. They’re there. They know I know they’re there.”
A Georgia native, Thompson continues to live in Milledgeville. He’s been on the bench for more than four decades, having served as a judge of the Milledgeville City Court and the Baldwin County Court starting in 1971. He was a superior court judge in the eight-county Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit until he was appointed to the Supreme Court, including serving as chief judge in that circuit from 1987 to 1994.