AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Building up top state courts in Georgia could be pricey

Gov. Nathan Deal's last-minute push to add three members to the state Court of Appeals this year won't come cheap. And it could be only the first step toward an even more costly effort to build bigger, more modern top state courts.

The price-tag for the new Appeals Court judges will run well beyond their $174,500 state salaries.

The court is asking Deal for $2.57 million over the next year and a half to fund the new judges and provide them staff, space, furniture,  publications, etc. That is in addition to the $1.5 million the General Assembly put in the budget this fiscal year for salaries and benefits.

The proposed budget the courts sent to Deal includes $115,000 in the fiscal 2016 mid-year and fiscal 2017 budgets for "commute mileage and expense allowances for new judgeships." The money is being requested even though Deal has yet to announce who will serve in the new posts. So it's unclear how far they will live from Capitol Hill, where the state court building is located.

Legislators added a few lines to a judicial pay raise bill last year saying that - besides their salaries - Supreme Court and Appeals Court judges can get the same $173 per day expense allowance as lawmakers for 30 days a year if they live 50 miles or more from the state court building, which is across from the Capitol.

At the end of this year's session, Deal asked House and Senate negotiators to add the money for the three new appeals court judges to the budget for the current fiscal year.

The proposal wasn't publicly vetted by committees, but the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noticed it when House and Senate budget negotiators met to shake hands on a new spending plan during the session's final week.

It was one of several add-ons Deal requested be added at the last minute, part of a long tradition for governors in Georgia.

Lawyer-legislators say the Georgia Court of Appeals has among the heaviest, if not the heaviest caseload for appeals panels in the country. They say the judges are badly needed, although they didn't publicly make the case for them until the last minute.

The state's Judicial Nominating Commission, run by the governor's campaign lawyer and a top lobbyist and Deal campaign fundraiser, have been vetting a long list of applicants for the jobs. The commission announced Monday it would interview 42 of the 110 who applied.

The additional Appeals Court costs may only be a first step toward a more expensive - and more Deal-influenced - top judiciary in Georgia.

AJC political reporter Jim Galloway recently reported that the Deal administration is formulating a plan to try to add two more members to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Deal will want to have buy-in from the existing Supreme Court justices, and Galloway reported that one of the incentives may be to promise to fulfill a long-term goal of at least some of the judges: to get a new judicial building.

After some late-session judicial lobbying in 2014, the General Assembly approved borrowing $7.5 million to design and begin site preparation for the new home of the Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals on land where the long-closed state archives now sits.  Since the money is being borrowed using 20-year-bonds, the $7.5 million for planning and site preparation will cost about $13 million in loan payments.

There were estimates last year that the new judicial building would cost $115 million or more. That would make it one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive state-funded buildings ever approved by the General Assembly.

However, outstate lawmakers have often rejected calls to spend big money around the Capitol, so it's unclear if they will go along with Deal on the judicial complex, even though the governor has an excellent working relationship with Republican leaders in the General Assembly.

Just getting the millions to demolish the archives building has been difficult in the past. Governors have been trying to tear the building down for years. But the General Assembly keeps finding new ways to spend the money governors put in the budget for that purpose.  Funding to demolish the building was cut from this year's budget by lawmakers at the same time they added money for the new judges.











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About the Author

James Salzer has covered state government and politics in Georgia since 1990.