Insights on Fulton Superior Court’s docket problems

The April 30th issue of Fulton County Daily Report  includes an interview with Chief Judge Dee Downs of Fulton Superior Court.  (She and I made some stump speeches together in her first campaign, as I filled in as a surrogate for the successful candidate for another seat on the same court.)  The judge, who career before election to the bench in ’96 was as an Assistant District Attorney, explains at length the nature and causes of the choking backlog of felony criminal cases in her court.  There is no mention of any civil docket in the court.

[Fulton Superior Court] has 19 judges, including Downs—the most of any superior court in the state. But it also has the highest number of felony cases per judge in the state. . . .   Her biggest challenge is to improve caseload management for the perpetually overloaded court, which is plagued by a backlog of cases. She also has expanded its drug and mental health diversion courts so that more offenders with addictions or mental illnesses get treatment and, she hopes, stay out of trouble. And the court also needs a system-wide computer system to link the balkanized fiefdoms of Fulton’s courts, jail and district attorney’s and public defender’s offices so they can get case dispositions in real time. The county agreed to fund an integrated system in January, and it is expected to be operating in two years. . . .

The number of pending criminal cases at Fulton Superior—which Downs estimates make up about 70 percent of the judges’ workload—jumped from 6,816 at the end of 2004 to 8,322 by July 31, 2005, because the court lost time to work disruptions and security concerns following the March 11, 2005 courthouse shootings. That number did not start to drop until this year. By February the criminal caseload was down to 7,484, Downs said.

the city of Atlanta in 2003 started shunting arrestees charged with state offenses from its jail on Garnett Street to the Fulton County Jail. That shifted all of the city arrestees’ early calendar hearings from the municipal court to the Fulton courthouse, which increased the number of prisoners who had to be bused over from Rice Street.

After the shootings, Downs and Fulton County Sheriff Myron E. Freeman decided to cap the number of prisoners in the holding cell at 250 because of security concerns. Consequently, she said, “the building was taken over with early appearances from the city,” which filled up the cell. The number of felony cases her court could hear dropped because a lot of those felony defendants got squeezed out.

“There was a backslide in 2005 because we did not have the facilities to do the job,” she said, adding that the court didn’t get much work done for about a month after the shootings because of the attendant upheaval and because it was in mourning. . . .

“I tell new judges, ‘You don’t have time to get it perfect. There are X many new cases coming in each month, and we have to get X many out the door. We all want to get it right, but there is a tremendous crush of cases, and we simply cannot lose ground by not processing the number that comes in.’” …

Downs said low-level, nonviolent offenses, which are property and drug crimes as opposed to crimes against persons, make up about 65 to 70 percent of her court’s felony cases. Disposing of them quickly is key to her strategy for reducing the court’s caseload.

These non-complex felony cases should resolve well before trial, but instead, a backlog has built up, in part because they get pushed aside for bigger, more important cases. “There were so many cases that the lawyers had no time to do the pre-trial processing and get them sorted out. They would see [their client] in court for the first time,” she said. …

In mid-February, Downs shortened the non-complex case calendar to 60 days, which gave the county’s lawyers and pretrial personnel smaller caseloads. She and Judge Alford J. Dempsey Jr. are handling all non-complex cases to keep them from clogging up other judges’ calendars….

Keeping more hearings at the jail is central to Downs’ triage strategy and, more importantly, she said, to good security. For all criminal cases, first appearances are handled at the jail by one of Fulton Superior’s three magistrate judges. For non-complex cases, the magistrates now also handle pleas and arraignment at the jail instead of the courthouse. For complex cases, plea and arraignment is still done at the jail, but Downs hopes to handle it by video, without transporting prisoners, once the technology is in place. The only non-complex cases that go to the courthouse are those that make it as far as Downs’ and Dempsey’s trial calendars.

Occasionally, I have heard my friends on Fulton Superior Court complain about wanting more quality civil cases, and I’m sure they do.  This interview gives us a glimmer of the crushing blow of criminal cases that led to many civil cases being filed in State Court rather than Superior Court.  However, I am still inclined to file a high profile, complex civil case in Superior Court from time to time.



The Shigley Law Firm  represents plaintiffs in wrongful death and catastrophic injury cases statewide in Georgia, and in other states subject to the multijurisdictional practice and pro hac vice rules in each state. Ken Shigley was designated as a "SuperLawyer" in Atlanta Magazine and one of the "Legal Elite" in Georgia Trend Magazine. He is a Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, Chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Liability Institute and former chair of the Georgia Insurance Law Institute. He particularly focuses on cases arising from truck wrecks and accidents (tractor trailers truck wrecks, semi truck wrecks,18 wheeler truck wrecks, big rig truck wrecks, log truck wrecks, dump truck wrecks.