JGC accomplishments (formatted)

Fulton County, Georgia was created in 1853. Its boundaries were set by an act of the General
Assembly on February 7, 1854. Its courts shared a Judicial Circuit with other surrounding
counties. In 1869, the name of the judicial circuit was changed to the Atlanta Judicial Circuit. At
that time, the Circuit included Clayton, DeKalb, and Fulton Counties. On September 8, 1885,
Clayton and DeKalb became part of the newly formed Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit.
The Superior Court of Fulton County is a court of general jurisdiction. The Superior Court
consists of a chief judge and nineteen other judges. Three of the nineteen judges focus solely on
family law matters, while the other sixteen manage mixed civil and criminal dockets.
The State Court of Fulton County was created as a court of limited jurisdiction in 1976 by local
legislation that consolidated the former civil and criminal courts. The State Court consists of a
chief judge and nine other judges. The State Court has jurisdiction concurrent with the Superior
Court over criminal cases below the grade of felony and civil actions, without regard to the
amount in controversy, except those actions in which exclusive jurisdiction is vested in the
Superior Courts.
Magistrate Courts were established statewide by the Georgia Constitution of 1983 as limited
jurisdiction courts. Prior to the 1983 constitutional revision that converted small claims courts
and justices of the peace to magistrate courts, local Fulton County legislation authorized the
office of magistrate within the State Court. The Magistrate Court has criminal jurisdiction over
traffic cases, ordinance and code violations, jail and warrant first-appearance proceedings, and
warrant applications. Magistrate Court civil jurisdiction includes dispossessory/landlord-tenant
cases and small claims actions involving $15,000 or less.
Throughout most of their history, the Superior Court and State Court operated autonomously
from one another. In late 2010, the courts merged their respective pretrial services programs into
a single unit. This merger achieved significant efficiencies and improved services. The merger
also has served as a roadmap for future collaboration between the two courts.
The combined pretrial services office oversees defendants charged with misdemeanors and
felonies and provides neutral, non-adversarial, and verified information to judges, defense
attorneys, and the prosecutors. Pretrial services conducts drug testing of defendants to determine
the prevalence of drug addiction in the jail population and provides initial screening for addiction
and or mental illness to determine which defendants may be appropriately referred to Drug or
Mental Health Court. It also helps judges determine whether an accused should be granted bond.1
Prior to the merger, State Court Pretrial Services had only three case managers to monitor over
2,300 misdemeanor supervision cases. Most defendants reported by telephone, and case notes
were not current. Without an automated case management system, caseloads quickly became
Based in part upon the success of the merger of pretrial services, in November 2011, the Chief
Judges of Fulton County’s Superior Court and State Court agreed that the time was ripe to
examine the respective business practices of each court to ensure maximum efficiency without
negatively impacting the public’s access to justice. The Chief Judges appointed a 16-member
“Task Force” encompassing geographical, political, racial, and organizational diversity.2
The Task Force set out to accomplish two major goals. The first goal was instructive: the courts
wanted legislative and county leaders to understand the personnel and budgetary obstacles the
Superior Court and State Court confronted when attempting to restructure certain offices or
functions. It was critical to include representatives from the Fulton County Commission so that
they might better appreciate the bottlenecks in budget and personnel management facing the
courts. The Commissioners who served were Chairman John Eaves, Commissioner Joan Garner,
and Commissioner Liz Hausmann. It was also important to include members of the General
Assembly, as some reforms would potentially require local or general legislation. Representative
Wendell Willard and Senator Horacena Tate graciously agreed to serve.
The second goal was constructive: the courts wanted to offer a vision of a redesigned court
system which would eliminate as many redundancies as possible, create more operating
efficiencies, and provide for a culture not only of competency but also collaboration.
As to our second goal, in addition to the commissioners and legislators, we drew upon the
experience of four attorneys, one a former Georgia State Bar and Atlanta Bar President, one a
current Atlanta Bar President, and two well-respected attorneys with a wide variety of practice in
State, Superior, and Magistrate Court. Also, leaders in the business and faith community served
on the Task Force in order to examine current business practices and search for better ways to
serve the community. Finally, the Administrative Office of the Courts provided invaluable
service as the Task Force surveyed other courts and business practices within Georgia and across
the nation.
After several months of Task Force meetings, on May 3, 2012, judges from both Superior Court
and State Court came together in an unprecedented joint meeting sponsored by the Atlanta Bar
Association, Duane Morris LLP, and Hunton & Williams LLP. The meeting was facilitated by
the National Conference of State Courts. At that meeting, judges discussed opportunities for
collaboration, including broaching the topic of consolidating at least some of the functions of the
two courts.
In September 2012, the Fulton County Court Improvement Task Force released its Final Report
and Recommendations.3
Following issuance of the Task Force’s final report, the Chief Judges of the State and Superior
Courts appointed an interim joint governance committee which began reviewing the
recommendations contained in the report. The interim joint governance committee proposed a
charter for a permanent Joint Governance Committee (“JGC”) comprised of the Chief Judges (or
their designees) of each court, and three elected members of each court selected by their
respective colleagues. Both benches approved the charter in October 2012 and the JGC began
addressing some of the recommendations made by the Task Force. Judge Wesley B. Tailor of the
State Court of Fulton County was elected by the members of the Joint Governance Committee to
chair the JGC. As of the end of 2013, the JGC members were Chief Judge Cynthia Wright,
Chief Judge John Mather, Judge Christopher Brasher, Judge Shawn Ellen LaGrua,
Judge Diane Bessen, Judge Susan Edlein, Judge Robert McBurney, and Judge Wesley Tailor.
The JGC meets every month. The JGC formed separate subcommittees to address specific issues,
such as court reporting, customer service, high performance courts, technology, etc. Judges from
both benches are working together well, which is a significant cultural shift within the court
The final report of the Task Force made numerous recommendations for the improvement of the
trial courts within Fulton County. Within the first year of its existence, the JGC made significant
progress toward making those recommendations a reality. Below is a summary of the
accomplishments of the JGC broken out by category as identified by the Task Force:
1. Juror and Interpreter Management - Operate one jury pool and one court interpreter office
to serve the courts efficiently by maximizing the use of technology and personnel
Consolidate (and modernize) juror operations so that a single juror system exists for use
by both courts (1.1); Once a consolidated juror system is operating, explore possibilities
to improve customer service (1.2, 7.1, 7.2)
The courts consolidated the separate jury systems into one office and hired a new Jury
Clerk to manage the combined operations. The respective Court Administrators
conducted the first round of interviews for the Jury Clerk position. Chief Judge Mather
and Chief Judge Wright interviewed the finalists, assisted by Ms. Cicely Barber, State
Court Chief Clerk and Administrator and Ms. Yolanda Lewis, Superior Court
Administrator. It was a unanimous decision to appoint Ms. Phenix Ayers-Gaston, the
Superior Court’s interim jury clerk, to be the Jury Clerk for the unified jury office.
As part of the reforms brought about by the consolidation, Fulton County jurors now
receive a consolidated summons and are called no more frequently than once every 18
months for jury duty in either court, whereas in the past, a Fulton County resident could
receive a separate summons for each court during the same time frame. Information now
is provided consistently to all jurors.
Additionally, unified jury office implemented an E-Response system, which allows jurors
to complete their summons questions, defer their service date, and request an excusal
and/or disqualification online. E-Response provides for a quicker check-in when jurors
are required to report.
The unified jury office also implemented a juror text notification system, which allows
jurors to opt-in to receive text message updates regarding their upcoming jury service,
including a reminder text and reporting status for jury service.
The courts established a joint jury committee with representatives from both courts. The
joint jury committee will work with the JGC to improve the courthouse experience of the
public when interacting with the court system in Fulton County. The judges of both
Superior Court and State Court welcome the jurors every morning.
By working together, the courts and the unified jury office have reduced the number of
summons issued to Fulton County residents and have dramatically increased the
percentage of jurors reporting for jury service. The table below shows the yield rates for
2012, prior to the consolidation, and for 2013, following the consolidation:
Yield Rate (number of jurors who reported for service
Non-Respondent Rate (number of jurors not excused,
exempted, deferred, or marked undeliverable)
Undeliverable Rate
Utilization Rate (number of jurors selected for trial)
2. Governance - Establish a joint governance structure for the courts to coordinate and
improve the delivery of court services, demonstrate a commitment to accountability and
transparency, and operate an effective, customer-focused business enterprise.
Review the magistrate court system’s place within the larger Fulton Court superstructure
and the manner in which magistrates (including the chief) are appointed; propose
changes, if any (2.4); Examine the administrative operations of both courts to identify
additional functions, if any, that may be similarly consolidated (2.2, 3.2)
The JGC established a personnel and budget subcommittee that is preparing to perform
an organizational analysis of court administration across Superior, State, and Magistrate
On November 5, 2013, the National Center for State Courts submitted a Fulton County
State and Magistrate Court Reengineering Study. This limited analysis will serve as a
starting point for the next study across all three courts.
In 2013, local legislation was enacted addressing the magistrate court in Fulton County.
HB 443 authorized the Governor’s appointment of the chief magistrate for the term
beginning January 2015. Thereafter, the chief magistrate will be elected countywide in a
non-partisan election. The new chief magistrate will be authorized to appoint all associate
magistrates with the approval of the majority of the State Court and a majority of the
Superior Court.
Prepare an annual progress report on implementing the Task Force’s recommendations
for key constituencies (2.3)
This document serves as the annual progress report.
Review the laws and policies governing the role and authority of chief judges; propose
changes, if any (2.5)
The role and authority of the Chief Judge for each court was addressed by local
legislation enacted in 2013. House Bill 435 changes the compensation of the Chief Judge
and addresses several of the duties of the Chief Judge. House Bill 437 provides for the
selection, term, powers, and duties of the Chief Judge.
Develop a uniform set of performance measures that are meaningful across both courts
and are actually measurable (2.6)
The JGC established a subcommittee to look at the implementation of performance
measures and case processing standards and issue an annual report for both courts and for
each individual judge.
During 2013, the entire Fulton County justice system implemented a new information
management system, which is expected to improve access to and reduce delay in sharing
case information among the county’s justice system partners. The new system went
“live” for criminal cases as of July 8, 2013 and November 12, 2013 for civil cases.
The tools necessary for judges to manage their individual caseloads were not made
available under the new application. The JGC is continuing to work with the information
management system to develop accurate reports of caseloads and case management
across the courts.
3. Personnel Management - Provide the courts and superior court clerk with greater
autonomy over management of their human resources by implementing an unclassified
system of personnel administration and other personnel system changes.
Develop and implement personnel policies and procedures for unclassified staff (3.1)
In 2013, House Bill 594 was enacted and provides that all future employees of Fulton
County other than public safety employees shall be unclassified and may be dismissed,
demoted, or disciplined for any reason or no reason without notice, explanation, or
appeal. Additionally, House Bill 598 requires that all Superior, State, or Magistrate Court
employees who are first or again employed on and after July 1, 2013, shall be employees
at will.
The JGC continues to work toward the adoption of personnel policies. The courts have
been and continue to consult with private, outside human resources professionals, as well
as county resources to discuss the most effective way forward.
4. Production of Court Records -Jointly manage court reporting personnel and transcript
production to reduce costs, utilize state of the art technologies, preserve retention of court
records, and facilitate sharing of records among justice system partners.
Determine the appropriate structure for court reporter management in Fulton Courts (4.1,
4.2, 4.3); Review the policies of both courts concerning production of transcripts in
criminal proceedings and propose changes to reduce unnecessary expenditures (4.4, 4.6,
4.8); Review best practices in other jurisdictions and determine if there are
technology-based opportunities to reduce transcript costs (4.5, 4.9)
In September 2013, the courts initiated a pilot project testing the feasibility of a combined
court reporter pool project. The project attempted to share court reporters across the State
Court and Superior Court.
The pilot court reporter pool initially was comprised of the following:
(1) all court reporters in State Court [6];
(2) all floater court reporters in Superior Court [7]; and
(3) court reporters assigned to Judges Wright and McBurney, who volunteered to
participate in the pilot project [2]
The goal of the project was to successfully manage a pool of court reporters across State
Court and Superior Court. Pool court reporters were to be assigned to judge(s) on a
2-week rotation basis and calendar assignments on a 1-week rotation basis. The duration
of the project was to be 90 days.
The JGC asked all participating judges to provide detailed court calendars for September
through November to ensure coordination of timely coverage of all calendars. The JGC
also collected a list of other known and expected assignments and requirements.
In order to monitor the progress of the pilot program, the JGC expected to hold a meeting
with participating court reporters at least every other week during the project for input
and feedback. The JGC also solicited input from participating judges. At the end of the
project, the JGC was to prepare a report and recommendation whether to continue with a
joint pool of court reporters for both State and Superior Courts.
The pilot met with resistance from some judges and court reporters. The project
eventually was put on hold until new court reporter rules are finalized, which is expected
to occur in 2014. The project will resume thereafter and will encompass the new rules.
Under the new rules, the JGC will study whether to make all new court reporters
independent contractors versus salaried employees.
The decision has been made and implemented by both courts that all newly-hired court
reporters must be “real-time” capable.
5. Financial Management - Grant budget independence to the courts upon demonstrated
coordination and improvement in the delivery of services and efficiencies.
Budget independence should be granted to the courts upon demonstrated coordination
and improvement in the delivery of services and efficiencies (5.1)
In 2013, the courts gained budget and personnel independence through the enactment of
local legislation. The legislation provided that each court’s budget would be
administered by the respective court administrator with the oversight of the
corresponding Chief Judge. House Bill 441 provides for the administration and oversight
of the budget of the Superior Court, while House Bill 442 applies to the State Court of
Fulton County.
6. Intake and Filing - Ensure the public cost-effective and easy access to the courts by
implementing an electronic case filing and access application.
Develop a plan of action concerning the implementation of a joint e-filing system that
would allow more complete electronic access to the courts and court records (6.2)
At the end of 2013, the Clerk of Superior Court, the State and Magistrate Courts, and the
Probate Court agreed in principal to move forward with a single, unified electronic filing
system and were actively working to reach that goal. It is expected that the courts and the
Clerk of Superior Court will issue a single request for proposal in 2014 for an electronic
filing system for all of the Fulton County courts.
7. Customer Experience - Improve court users’ experiences in the courts by providing
customer service desks, updating court forms, and conducting a rigorous, biennial survey.
Work with outside agencies, such as general services and sheriff, to design or propose
changes to signage of courthouse facilities (separate and apart from juror customer
service) (7.1); Develop a plan for one-stop (or limited stops) customer service by
consolidating self-help areas (7.1, 7.2)
The JGC established a subcommittee to address the courthouse experience for the public.
Members of the subcommittee met with general services personnel to develop a plan to
improve the signage within and outside the courthouse. The goal is improve the access to
information for those who may not know exactly where they need to go for the services
they are seeking.
Both State Court and Superior Court jointly issued a request for proposal for private
misdemeanor probation services. Before 2013, the courts used the same company, but under
separate contracts, with no coordination.
In order to continue to foster a congenial and productive working relationship among the judges
of both courts, in July 2013, judges from both courts came together for a joint dinner at the home
of Judge Shawn LaGrua. This is expected to be an annual event.
The courts continued to work together to host a Dome & Gavel meeting every year, to which the
courts invite members of the Fulton County delegation of the General Assembly to discuss the
current state of the Fulton County court system.