Note: The following item was provided by the Tallapoosa Circuit Superior Court. – KtE

Polk County Superior Court has been recognized by the Administrative Office of the Courts for the highest case clearance rate of all 159 Georgia counties.

Chief Superior Court Judge Mark Murphy and Superior Court Judge Andrew Roper were at the July 2023 meeting of the Judicial Workload Assessment Committee in Atlanta when the statewide case clearance awards were announced.

Polk Superior Court earned the top spot in the state with a case clearance rate of 178%. According to the National Center for State Courts, the case clearance rate is the number of existing cases closed as a percentage of the number of new cases filed. A court’s clearance rate measures whether a court is keeping up with its incoming case load.

The Office of Research and Data for the Georgia Judicial Council explains that, ideally, clearance rates will be 100% or more, indicating that a court is keeping up with its incoming caseload. Over the past three years, Polk Superior Court has averaged closing 78% more cases than were filed during that time.

Chief Superior Court Judge Mark Murphy was quick to commend all the state and local offices involved in achieving first place in the state.

“This is an outstanding achievement made possible by unrelenting work from District Attorney Jack Browning’s office, criminal defense attorneys, the Polk County public defender’s office, civil attorneys, presiding judges and judicial staff, senior judges, Superior Court Clerk Stacie Baines and her staff, and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and courthouse security. All these offices and personnel provided essential services to keep the business of the Polk Superior Court moving. In March 2020, Polk Superior Court was closed to jury trials for about 15 months because of the Covid-19 statewide judicial emergency. Although criminal and civil cases continued to be filed, our ability to move existing and new cases was severely hampered.”

He continued: “When the Supreme Court reopened access to jury trials in 2021, I embarked on an aggressive schedule of jury trial calendars to whittle away our backlog. The past two years have been a remarkably busy time at the Polk County courthouse. But the committed public service of all these state and county offices has been truly inspiring. We have also strategically used our judicial circuit’s ARPA grant funds for senior judges who have assisted in hearing cases. This first-place case clearance award from the Administrative Office of the Courts celebrates their accomplishments as essential members of the best court system in Georgia and proves that our case backlog recovery plan has worked. But most importantly, with the Covid-19 court closures behind us, litigants have regained full access to Polk Superior Court and to resolutions of their legal matters.”

Judge Andrew Roper commented that “this recognition serves to confirm the dedicated effort to tackle caseload backlog as well as to keep new cases moving efficiently. To be ranked #1 out of every Superior Court in the State of Georgia in case clearance rate is quite an accomplishment, and it wouldn’t be possible without the collaborative efforts of all involved. I commend and sincerely thank all of my colleagues for their commitment to this achievement.

In reflecting on how Polk Superior Court regained momentum after the Covid-19 shutdown, Judge Murphy noted, “I absolutely must, again, thank the Polk County commissioners, the Cedartown City council, and the staff of both governments. When we first reopened jury trials in mid-2021, we were required to maintain that dreaded ‘social distancing,’ which meant that our largest courtroom could seat only about forty jurors at one time, but we needed to seat about three times that many jurors in order to organize enough jurors for trial week. So, instead of having to go through the same time-consuming process three separate times to organize small groups of jurors, the governments of Polk County and Cedartown collaborated with us to provide access to the Cedartown Performing Arts Center. There, we were able to seat all our jurors at one time while maintaining social distancing.”

“Clerk Stacie Baines and Sheriff Johnny Moats developed an excellent plan for premises security, juror parking, and efficient juror check in. But it sounds simpler than it was. Under Georgia law, when we hold court at a location other than the county courthouse, there are some legalities that must be met. It requires a county resolution and other legal agreements, all of which were promptly addressed by our Cedartown and Polk County officials, who worked together to overcome these challenges to resume jury trials. I couldn’t be more grateful to our local leaders who made this process successful,” he added. “So, I must take a moment to specifically thank the following individuals for many hours of work that went into making both the Cedartown Performing Arts Center and the Polk County Commission meeting room available, both legally and logistically, for use as courthouse annex space: the entire Polk County commission, and especially Polk County Commissioner Scotty Tillery and Chairman Hal Floyd; county manager Matt Denton and assistant manager Connor Hooper; our Superior Court Clerk Stacie Baines and her then-Chief Deputy Clerk Michelle Short; District Attorney Jack Browning; Public Defender Karen Wilkes; Sheriff Johnny Moats, Chief Deputy Jonathan Blackmon, and their dedicated officers; my judicial assistant, Heather Prescott; the City of Cedartown, and, in particular, Dale Tuck, Edward Guzman, Oscar Guzman, and attorney Carey Pilgrim. They all worked together to take the essential steps to make the jury organization process as efficient as possible while still protecting public health as we resumed jury trials after the pandemic.”

Judge Murphy specially recognized the citizens of Polk County, explaining that “over the past two years, Clerk Stacie Baines has mailed out a few thousand trial juror summons. Few of those jurors ended up serving on a trial, but there’s no stronger incentive to move pending cases to a final pretrial resolution than the knowledge that jurors have been summoned, organized, and stand ready to be selected for a trial. Human nature being what it is, parties to a case often need that final nudge from a jury being in the courthouse lobby to make those final decisions to resolve a case. Judge Roper and I are grateful to our Polk County residents for their jury service, and hope that all who are summoned leave with a positive experience. We always welcome constructive suggestions from our jurors on how to improve the experience.”

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