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More cases getting closed
Addition of third judge relieves pressure on court
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Forsyth County News

By the numbers

* Criminal cases disposed Jan. 1-June 30, 2012 — 592

* Criminal cases disposed Jan. 1-June 30, 2013 — 701

* Criminal cases pending — 484

* 173 of the pending criminal cases (about 36 percent) are assigned to Judge Philip Smith

* Average civil cases disposed Jan. 1, 2010-12 through June 30, 2010-12 — 1,120

* Civil cases disposed Jan. 1-June 30, 2013 — 1,300

* Civil cases currently pending — 2,135

* 710 of the pending civil cases (33 percent) are assigned to Smith


Source: Forsyth County Clerk of Court

Once faced with a growing backlog of cases, Forsyth County Superior Court seems to have gotten some relief with the addition of a third judge in January.

The court has experienced an increase in cases resolved in the first six months this year.

About 16 percent more criminal cases have been closed so far this year than last, and about 14 percent more civil cases were resolved than the average for recent years, according to data from the Forsyth County Clerk of Court’s office.

The six-month snapshot can be difficult to compare, since the time to close out a case can range from several years to a few weeks, said Greg Allen, clerk of court.

However, the feeling in the courthouse is that the overall time frame has sped up.

“Basically, our [two] judges were doing the work of three,” Allen said. “Our cases are really the same number, but obviously things are getting resolved a lot quicker.”

The county had been at the top of the state’s list to receive a new judge based on its growth in caseload.

The Bell-Forsyth Judicial Circuit, which includes only Forsyth County, was granted a third judge position in April 2012, when Gov. Nathan Deal signed Senate Bill 356 into law.

In January, Deal appointed Philip Smith, a Forsyth County State Court judge at the time, to join sitting Judges Jeffrey Bagley and David Dickinson.

Bagley, the chief Superior Court judge, said dividing cases among three people instead of two makes his daily calendar more manageable.

“I’m still having a full day of court, but I’m not seeing the same backlog,” he said. “I’m not having to hold cases over to another day or try to reschedule them because I couldn’t get to them.”

Scheduling cases has become more proactive and less reactive, he said.

District Attorney Penny Penn said her office had already been making progress in reducing the case backlog, a trend that improved with the additional judge.

“As you put the cases in the pipeline, then that’s just one more portal, if you will, one more place to go, Penn said.

The office also received another prosecutor position from the state in association with the third judge. That’s another factor that’s allowed criminal cases to be processed more quickly, though less so than an extra judge, Penn said.

“Having an additional prosecutor certainly helps with that, but the DA’s office can put cases in the pipeline, and then we can move them only so far,” she said. “We’re relying on the court after that.”

Cases are randomly assigned to judges, and the workload is split as evenly as possible.

A barrier that still remains for court officials is the lack of physical space, for which relief is on the way.

Construction is slated to start Monday on a new county courthouse, which could open at the start of 2015.

Until then, Penn said her staff has had to spread out due to space constraints, which reduces the office’s potential efficiency.

According to Allen, the court can’t have visiting judges assist unless one of the five superior or state court judges is not on the bench.

“That’s where we’re stuck,” he said. “We physically can’t do any more.”

The outlook, however, seems to have improved with a third judge, despite the lack of space.

“From what I see,” Allen said, “we are getting a lot more things done.”