Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh Thompson made the remarks during his first annual State of the Judiciary speech before a joint session of the Legislature.
“Most of us grew up saying the Pledge of Allegiance at school, in which we promised ‘liberty and justice for all.’ I don’t believe we ever meant, ‘liberty and justice only for those who can afford it,’” Thompson said.
Seventy percent of the state’s lawyers work in five counties in metro Atlanta, and six counties have no lawyers at all, he said. Because of inadequate legal services, courts statewide are seeing an increase in the number of people representing themselves, he said.
“Our legal system is an adversarial system of justice,” he said. “The reality is that poor people who represent themselves often lose.”
He gave specific examples of people who could be harmed without legal assistance: women who need protection from an abusive husband, veterans denied promised education and disability benefits and the elderly who are often the targets of fraud.
The state also needs more court interpreters to ensure those who don’t speak English are not denied justice, he said.
Georgia currently has 149 licensed court interpreters, and they speak 12 languages, which is not enough, he said.
A bright spot in the state’s legal system is the expansion of accountability courts — including drug courts, mental health courts and DUI courts — which give judges an alternative to incarceration for certain qualified offenders. Of those who complete the programs, 93 percent remain free of criminal charges.
Thompson singled out specific judges who are making those courts work. Thanks to appropriations by the Legislature, he said, the state will have 102 accountability courts by the spring with more to come.
Thompson was sworn in for a four-year term as chief justice in August after being unanimously elected to the post by his peers.