This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
Members of Dahlonega’s Municipal Court staff (l to r) Brandy Clifford; solicitor’s assistant; Doug Parks, solicitor; and Taylor Ewing, court clerk
Since the early 2000s, municipal courts have experienced significant changes in mandates, roles and expectations due in part to several judicial decisions, including the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Alabama v. Shelton
, a case that guaranteed the right to an attorney if a person could not afford one when they faced the possibility of incarceration. During this time, municipal officials also experienced a shift in thinking, according to Dahlonega City Attorney and Solicitor Doug Parks.
“At one point in time [municipal] courts were treated as a necessity, but not necessarily with the respect that we needed it to be and we realized that had to change,” he said. “
It was obvious that the trend was to make the municipal courts a true due-process, fully functioning court.”
The city of Dahlonega’s municipal court, which has been credited for making multiple improvements, enlisted a number of changes to ensure a fair and orderly court procedure including seamless integration with the district attorney’s office, implementing a consistent recordkeeping process and contracting with the public defender’s office.
To guarantee that all cases receive the same treatment as they would in the superior court, the Dahlonega municipal court requested and obtained an assistant district attorney who also functions as an assistant solicitor, Parks said.
The Dahlonega municipal court has also been applauded for its recordkeeping. For years, a live court reporter has been present at every session, motion, trial, plea or arraignment. This court reporter also keeps an archived audio recording file that is sent to the city each month.
The working relationship with the public defender’s office has fostered community trust in Dahlonega.
“We are actually the only city in this circuit that contracts with the state-run public defender’s office,” Parks said. “We know that the only contact that lots of citizens have with the city of Dahlonega is with municipal courts. Many times we view it as a necessary element to ensure that any citizen here is treated very fairly.”
And, the community is grateful for this level of fairness and consistency.
“We get a lot of positive feedback,” Parks said. “We even get ‘thank you’ notes from people from time to time about how they appreciate our process, and how people that live in others jurisdictions have not experienced the same level of respect.”
In addition to investments of money and time, Parks credits the dedication and by-in of the city’s court team as a way Dahlonega has overcome some of the challenges accompanied with ensuring a true due-process court.
“We’ve been blessed in that we have some really wonderful people who have bought into our mission and goal,” he said.
The staff also attends trainings on a regular basis to remain current on new laws and trends.
Parks also shared the impact that oversight and teamwork has on the court.
“We all share in oversight of what goes in the court system, the finance director needs to have a pretty strong role in assisting in private probation,” he said. “It’s extremely important to identify the audit responsibilities for private probation and the finance director has to be in on that—assisting in the contracting and working with private probation to ensure accountability.”
GMA’s Associate General Counsel Rusi Patel said having city leadership care about municipal court operations like Dahlonega’s, while also ensuring the protections of rights afforded to people who come into the court, provides a great example of a municipal court done right.
“These courts have the main goal of providing a boost to public safety and improving municipal quality of life,” he said.
While Dahlonega’s changes and methods won’t be a perfect fit for other courts around the state, Parks encourages research and support from court staff and city officials. “I think everyone has to make their own decisions—and for us this is a wise one. Our council has also been very supportive of it all.”