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By Eric Stirgus February 27, 2012

Georgia's top court doing more with less, chief justice says

Hear ye, hear ye, PolitiFact Georgia readers.

Georgia’s chief justice recently gave state lawmakers some ideas to improve how the justice system works -- and we listened attentively.

They included alternatives to warehousing nonviolent drug offenders in state prison, a recommendation to explore ways to reduce the number of Georgia’s youths committing serious crime and the need for more money to help some areas of the court system as its caseload increases.

Justice Carol Hunstein talked about the caseload problem in her own court, the Georgia Supreme Court.

"Our small staff of 51 is still fewer than we had a decade ago, yet our caseload -- like that of other courts -- has grown," Hunstein said in an address to the Georgia Legislature.

PolitiFact Georgia was surprised to hear Hunstein say the court has fewer employees than a decade ago. We wanted to see whether the judge was right.

First, is the Georgia Supreme Court staff smaller than it was a decade ago? Court spokeswoman Jane Hansen said the court had 57 employees in 2002. The staff reductions included some layoffs in the wake of the Great Recession and a couple of employees who retired and have not been replaced. The cuts included reporters of decision, the people who help the court’s seven judges write their opinions, as well as law clerks and an administrative assistant, Hansen said.

For a while recently, the court had no one to answer the telephone and had to rely on unpaid staff to perform that duty, Hansen said.

"Our budget was cut," she said. "We had cuts like other people did in the last few years."

The current staff consists of the seven justices, two law clerks each for six of the justices (the chief justice has three clerks), an administrative assistant for each justice, eight workers in the clerk’s office, five reporters of decisions, two information technology workers, five central staff employees, the spokeswoman and a fiscal employee.

So is the high court handling more cases?

The Georgia Supreme Court processed 760 cases between Aug. 30, 2010, and Jan. 31, 2011, according to the report it sent PolitiFact Georgia. The court processed 898 cases between Aug. 30, 2011, and Jan. 31, 2012, according to another report the court sent us.

PolitiFact Georgia also reviewed three years of data from the National Center for State Courts concerning the number of cases that came to the Georgia Supreme Court. The Virginia-based National Center for State Courts was founded in 1971 to advocate for state courts.

Here are the annual totals:

In 2007: 1,877 cases.

In 2008: 1,979 cases.

In 2009: 1,979 cases.

In 2002, the Georgia Supreme Court reported a total of 1,872 cases to the NCSC.

The numbers we’ve seen show the Georgia Supreme Court does have fewer employees than it did in 2002. We’ve seen data from the court and the NCSC that show a higher caseload. Our verdict is in. We rate Justice Hunstein’s claim as True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

State of the Judiciary address, Jan. 25, 2012

Georgia Supreme Court statistics

National Center for State Courts caseload reports, 2007-2009

Telephone interview with Georgia Supreme Court spokeswoman Jane Hansen, Jan. 30, 2012

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Georgia's top court doing more with less, chief justice says

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