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Using Municipal Courts the ‘Right Way’

November 16, 2016  |  Susan Moore, GMA General Counsel
This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
Susan Moore
A well-run municipal court enhances public safety and improves the overall quality of life within a city. A poorly run municipal court can cost a mu­nicipality in both reputation and rev­enue. Which one does your city have? How do you know? Are you just blindly trusting that the municipal court is well run? Or does your city coun­cil think a well-run municipal court is simply one that produces enough revenue to cover the expenses of the court plus throw off some extra money for the general fund?
Your city’s municipal court should never be regard­ed as a source of revenue for the city. In fact, neither law enforcement nor the courts should ever be used for revenue purposes. Not only does it undermine the pub­lic’s trust in government as a whole but it is a misuse of law enforcement and the judiciary system. Municipal courts are actual, real courts. The sentences imposed in them have real consequences on people’s lives. These real people are your constituents. And, cities all over the nation are getting sued when their municipal court fails to provide due process, imposes a sentence the defen­dant can never complete, or mishandles paperwork re­sulting in wrongful arrests.
The Southern Center for Human Rights and other public interest law firms are going around the state and country, suing cities that allegedly don’t “run their court properly.” While it is certainly up to a higher state-level court to adjudicate their claims, the efforts GMA is mak­ing to ensure municipal courts in Georgia are well run and protect people’s constitutional rights have sadly shown us that many municipal courts in Georgia are most likely not run well and are not protecting people’s constitutional rights.
What we have found is that in many places no one is minding the store. The judge comes in, holds court and leaves. The municipal court clerk’s office is unor­ganized, understaffed and undertrained. The mayor and council, perhaps even the city manager, feel that courts are foreign or intimidating, or that in respecting separa­tion of powers they shouldn’t take an interest in the operations of their municipal court.
While city officials should never interfere in the judgments of the court or its proceedings, they should ensure that individual constitutional rights are protect­ed and that the court complies with state law mandates. This means that city officials need a basic understand­ing of the standards a municipal court must meet. City officials also must hold someone accountable for meet­ing those standards and make sure the municipal court and municipal court personnel are properly funded and trained.
Because municipal courts are courts of law that handle criminal offenses, they are required to provide defendants with the same constitutional rights afford­ed in other, larger courts. If there is a possibility of jail time, the court must provide appointed counsel to de­fendants who cannot afford an attorney. If a defendant says she cannot afford to pay the fine, the court must hold a hearing on whether the defendant is indigent and alternative arrangements must be made to ensure the defendant is not jailed if they are found to be indi­gent. If an accused does not speak English well enough to understand the charges and assist in defense of the case, the court must provide a qualified interpreter. The court must pay for this service and cannot charge the defendant for it.
Since last fall, the GMA Legal Department has been looking into the state of Georgia’s municipal courts and considering what we can do to help make them the best in the nation. We are working on a publication for elected officials that will be available by the end of this year. We have also focused on municipal courts in city attorney training, surveyed municipal court judges and revised GMA’s training course on municipal courts. There is much more that we are planning to do includ­ing highlighting in Georgia’s Cities what elected offi­cials can do to improve municipal courts. But, the first thing you have to do is realize that municipal courts are not a utility and are not a revenue source for the city.
Remember, municipal courts are first and foremost a court of law. Collecting fines and fees serves a judi­cial purpose but such fines and fees should never be imposed as a funding source for the municipal court, other city departments or the city itself. If you are pre­pared to accept that, then you are ready to take the next steps to make sure your city guarantees justice for all in its municipal courts. We encourage you to talk to your city attorney about ensuring the proper operations of your municipal court and stay tuned for more informa­tion from GMA.
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