SAVANNAH, Ga. (CN) - Georgia's judges have blunted a power grab by the state's court clerks who wanted to gain control over electronic filing and throw off the authority of the judges. "The issue here is judicial control over court records and the clerks who maintain them," a Georgia lawyer said.
As drafted, the "Clerks Modernization Act" allowed Georgia's clerks to start an electronic filing system on their own and required the county to pay for it. The bill also cut out a host of provisions that allowed the presiding judge to discipline or remove the clerk.
"This is the issue that is at the center of the continuing e-filing controversy here," said a Georgia lawyer who asked to speak without attribution. "The judges see court records as their records and see themselves as responsible for ensuring public access to them. The clerks see them as their records, in part because their control over access presents a revenue opportunity."
The clerks' bill is related to initiatives in state courts across the nation tied to electronic filing of court documents, generally considered a source of new funds. The technology changes have often gone hand in hand with administrative power grabs elsewhere.
California's Administrative Office of the Courts, for example, pushed changes through a presiding judges' committee last year that gave court clerks full control over technology issues at the court and reduced the supervisory power of the presiding judge to general oversight.
At the same time, California's central court administrators pushed a $2 billion software project called the Court Case Management System intended to allow electronic filing and expected to generate millions of dollars for the courts. But the project was labeled a "fiasco" and a "boondoggle" and was halted last month.
Unlike clerks in California who are civil servants hired by the presiding judge, clerks in Georgia are elected politicians. They argue that their bill is nothing more than an attempt to bring Georgia in line with the digital revolution.
"The act cleans up some old code sections that no longer apply in the 21st century," said Greg Allen, Clerk of Superior and State Courts of Forsyth County. "Language is updated to include words such as 'digital' in mandated areas, and gives the superior court clerk the option of eliminating the costly printing of index books that are now available by computer."
But many of the state's lawyers and judges see the digital revolution as a stalking horse for clerks trying to increase their power. The proposed legislation is sometimes referred to as the "Clerk of the World" bill because it goes so far in aggrandizing the clerk's role.
Georgia's clerks are elected every four years in each of the state's 159 counties. They are paid by the state, with salaries based on county population.
"The clerk of court's job is a very important one, and we did feel we needed to make sure we had the authority to ensure that the job gets done," said Douglas County Superior Court Judge David Emerson. "We expressed our concern that we have to have authority and we feel like we have reached a good compromise on those provisions."
Emerson, who is the president-elect of the Council of Superior Court Judges, also serves as chair of the Technology Subcommittee of the Next Generation Courts Commission. He said the legislation does not directly involve electronic filing.