McMillian: Training necessary to update judges

Update from State Court Judges’ Conference

One of the questions that I am regularly asked is what exactly do I do as state court judge. State Courts have jurisdiction over criminal cases below the grade of felony and civil cases without regard to the amount of controversy, except for those cases in which the Superior Court has exclusive jurisdiction.

In 2011, Fayette State Court disposed of over 7,200 cases. State Court is a court of record and holds jury trials, hearings, arraignments, and drug court each month. In practice, that translates to about 210 court days per year.

But what do judges do when not in court? There are certainly many motions that need to be decided without a hearing and orders to be drafted, but judges are also required to keep themselves educated on the law.

Canon 3(B)(2) of the Code of Judicial Conduct provides: “Judges should be faithful to the law and maintain professional competence in it.” The Uniform State Court Rules further require that State Court judges earn a minimum of 24 hours from approved continuing judicial education courses every two years.

Toward this end, I recently attended the Council of State Court Judges’ Conference in Athens, Ga. There are 70 state courts with 122 judges, and we have conferences twice a year. The courses are designed to update judges on new cases and issues that appear regularly before state courts across Georgia.

To be faithful to the law, judges need to know what the law is. That is a fairly simple truism but a judge’s professional competence in the law can be difficult to maintain with the number of new laws that are passed every year and appellate court opinions that are issued each day.

In 2011 alone, the Georgia legislature passed 190 bills and in 2012, the legislature passed 131 bills.

This year, the state court judges learned about the complexities of the Service Members Civil Relief Act, a federal law that protects service members in civil lawsuits when called to active duty.

Although a form of the Act has been in existence since 1940, the Service Members Civil Relief Act was significantly amended in 2003 and offers broad relief to active service members. According to the U.S. Supreme Court in Boone v. Lightner, its purpose is to “[p]rotect those who have been obliged to drop their own affairs to take up the burdens of the nation.”

The state court judges also were briefed about constitutional issues that can arise from the practical constraint of courtroom space. The First and Sixth Amendments to the United States Constitution provide for public access to court proceedings. Many times, however, there simply is not enough space in the courtroom to accommodate the defendants, lawyers, witnesses, and spectators who desire to observe a particular proceeding.

Navigating this balance is an important task for any judge because of the vital role that public access plays in our judicial system. Not only does public access to courts provide a check on the judiciary, but it also serves to counter potential false testimony in court proceedings and informs the public about the legal process.

State Representative Rich Golick provided the state court judges an update on new laws passed by the Georgia legislature, in particular criminal justice reform. Of special significance to the state courts, House Bill 1176 expands the scope of misdemeanor theft, shoplifting, and forgery and provides additional support for accountability courts such as drug courts, DUI courts, and mental health courts. Also, House Resolution 1731 creates a committee to study revising the traffic laws.

Domestic violence and DUI cases frequently arise in my court. As part of our training, the state court judges learned about recurring behavioral patterns in situations of domestic violence and tools that can be used to assess the level of lethality risk in these situations.

As for DUI cases, that area of the law is highly technical and always evolving, which means that unique evidentiary issues often arise. One such recent issue on which the judges received updates was the defense bar’s attempts to obtain the source code for the Intoxilyzer 5000 (breathalyzer) machine. Along these same lines, the State Court judges heard from Dr. Karl Citek, a professor of optometry, who explained the science behind the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test and its effectiveness in assessing potentially impaired drivers.

On the civil side, the judges heard summaries of significant opinions in civil cases that have come down in the past year in connection with the Tort Reform Act of 2005, attorneys’ fees under O.C.G.A. § 9-15-14, and disclosure of insurance.

Finally, LexisNexis also provided computer research training. The days of using books alone for research are long gone; judges, lawyers and litigants need to be proficient in using on-line tools to research. LexisNexis is available for public use in the Law Library in the Fayette County Justice Center.

As a state court judge, I need to be able to make decisions efficiently and effectively, which requires that I know the law. Maintaining professional competence is never easy, but is a duty that I take seriously.

Carla McMillian

Tyrone, Ga.

[McMillian is the judge for the State Court of Fayette County and is running for election on July 31st. To learn more about her and the work of State Court, visit www.JudgeCarla.com.]

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