Chief Magistrate Frank Cox has suggested to Lee that the county could save half a million dollars a year by eliminating the soon-to-be-vacant judgeship in Cobb State Court — though Toby Prodgers, state court’s chief judge, is balking at the suggestion there’s not enough work to warrant the additional seat.
Cox wants Lee to ask Gov. Nathan Deal to hold off on replacing State Court Judge Rob Leonard while the county reviews its finances and caseloads to see if the position is indeed still warranted.
Lee said in a statement that he has a lot of respect for both Cox and Prodgers and he “appreciates their perspectives on the issue.”
“Since judgeships are created by the state legislature and appointments are made by the Governor, I am going to rely on their judgment,” Lee said.
On Nov. 7, Deal appointed Leonard to the Cobb Superior Court bench to succeed Judge George Kreeger, who retired.
Leonard currently hears cases in State Court’s Division 2, commonly known as traffic court, and is scheduled to be sworn in to the Superior Court seat on Nov. 26 at the state capital.
The day after Leonard’s appointment, Cox sent an email to Chairman Lee and the four district commissioners as well as County Manager David Hankerson.
“It is common knowledge in the defense bar that the traffic court judges do not have sufficient business to keep them productive for 5 days a week, most days they work half days 2-3 days a week,” Cox wrote. “You now have a unique & rare opportunity to save the county almost one-half million dollars annually by asking the governor to not fill his position & then asking the local delegation to abolish the position in the upcoming session. … By eliminating this position you eliminate the need of an admin assistant & 2 assistant solicitors in the solicitor’s office.
“You also reduce the need for bailiffs & sheriff deputies in the courtroom. The need for computers, copy machines, phones for that office also are eliminated,” Cox wrote. Some State Court judges routinely volunteer to sit on the Superior Court bench, an indication that they don’t have enough work,” Cox said.
Cobb State Court has 12 judges and an overall annual budget of $6.5 million. The caseload in the traffic-court division has in fact receded in recent years, from nearly 94,000 cases in 2010, to just over 65,000 in 2011, and fewer than 59,000 through Oct. 31 of this year.
State Court has 67 full-time employees, including the judges, and 56 part-time staff. Division 2 judges earn $134,454 annually, all of which comes from county funds.
State Court Chief Judge Prodgers said he learned of Cox’s comments on Monday and immediately sent his own letter to Chairman Lee, insisting the judgeship is “critical.” Although he doesn’t dispute that traffic-court caseloads have declined, he believes that is only temporary.
For one, the Georgia State Patrol is adding 30 new officers to enforce traffic in Cobb, which he expects to result in more cases by early next year. Another factor likely to result in more cases is the increased use of stop-arm cameras on Cobb school buses, he said.
Prodgers also said some Division 2 judges have filled in on Superior Court because they consider those cases of higher priority.
“It’s extremely commendable that they’ve taken the initiative to assist them with their caseloads,” he said.
Also, “Judge Cox has never even communicated with us about any of these things,” Prodgers said. “We’re doing our best to be responsible and plan for these things.”
Cox said he would be “pleasantly surprised” if county leaders followed up on his suggestion. None of the commissioners or Hankerson had even responded to his email, he said.
“I’m not criticizing any individual, just toward the fact that we have more personnel allocated to that court than we need,” Cox said. “Obviously you’ll get total resistance from anybody over there, who will bristle at the thought that they don’t have enough work. … But this is the situation: When you have people on the payroll that are unnecessary, then everybody suffers because we don’t have enough money to have pay raises.”
The Judicial Nominating Commission will likely review applications for the state court seat and recommend a short list of candidates to the governor.