ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia's judicial branch is embarking on a "historic year of change," state Supreme Court Chief Justice P. Harris Hines said Wednesday.
The high court, which has had seven members since 1945, now has nine, Hines noted in his State of the Judiciary address as he welcomed three recent appointees each to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals.
He also cited a "highly unusual number" of 32 newly elected or appointed superior court judges, pointing out that their average age is 49. Gov. Nathan Deal had foresight in appointing younger judges "to help bring continuity, stability and reliability to the rule of law in Georgia," Hines said during his speech in the Capitol's House chamber.
Hines highlighted a "historic shift" of certain cases from the Supreme Court to the Court of Appeals, including cases involving wills, divorce and titles to land. That will allow the highest court to accept more appeals "in the most complex and consequential cases that have the greatest implications for the law and society," he said.
He applauded the work in recent years of the Council on Criminal Justice Reform and said it plans to make recommendations to lawmakers to reform probation sentencing for low-risk, non-violent offenders. Georgia has the highest rate in the nation of people on probation, and the goal of new reforms would be to shift low-level probationers off of supervision rolls so probation officers can focus on the high-level offenders who can present more of a risk.
Hines also stressed other areas that need attention, including finding ways to provide affordable legal representation to working-class people with modest incomes and relieving some of the burdens on the state's "courts of first resort," the municipal, magistrate and probate courts that handle enormous caseloads.