Judges from the Republic of Georgia observe McDonough trial

By James Saxton
Times Correspondent

It didn’t take long for a judge from a former Soviet-Bloc country to realize a stark difference between a McDonough courtroom and her own courtroom 6,000 miles away.

Members of the judicial delegation from the Republic of Georgia pause for a photo with Chief Judge Ben Studdard of the Henry County State Court in McDonough during a break in a misdemeanor jury trial last week. Observing the one-day trial were, from left, Michael Cuccaro, assistant director of the Administrative Office of the Courts of Georgia in Atlanta; Mike Grant, U.S. Department of Justice resident legal advisor at the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi; Nata Tsnoriashvili, senior staff attorney at the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi; Judge Eka Gabrichidze of the Tbilisi City Court; Judge Studdard; Judge Eka Areshidze of the Tbilisi City Court; Shota Karchava, chairman of the Department of Common Courts in Tbilisi; Judge Madona Maisuradze of the Rustavi City Court; and Tamar Nepharidze, conference interpreter at the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi. Photo by Nick Vassy

“The community (in America) is very involved in the administration of justice,” observed Judge Eka Areshidze of the Tbilisi, Georgia, City Court. “As a result, the legal consciousness of the community is of the highest order and the people have the highest confidence in the judiciary.”

“It has developed here over the centuries,” she said. “That’s so important. Justice is vital for the development of the community.”

Areshidze and two other trial judges from the Republic of Georgia, along with the chairman of that nation’s Common Courts Department and three U.S. Department of Justice officials, visited Henry County State Court last week to observe a jury trial.

The trial, before State Court Judge Ben Studdard, involved a simple assault charge of a daycare center employee on a daycare student. The six jurors were reviewed from a pool of summoned citizens and selected, the testimony from both sides was heard, and the jury’s not guilty verdict was obtained – all in a single day.

The visiting judges marveled at the efficiency of that feat.

“The jury size was just six persons,” remarked another Tbilisi City Court judge, Eka Gabrichidze. “In my country, 12 is the minimum. We use a 12-person jury for every jury trial. Murder trial, 12 jurors. Fraud trial, still 12. For (a misdemeanor charge), a smaller jury would be so much easier to seat. (The smaller jury size) for misdemeanor trials in our courts would be very good,” a modification which, if allowed, “would help us speed up.”

Studdard said a single day for the entire process is fairly typical for a misdemeanor jury trial here.

“We use a six-person jury (for misdemeanors),” Studdard said. “I don’t think the visiting judges had the concept of a jury being anything but 12. That (larger) number is extremely difficult for them because their people don’t really have a concept of what jury service is, so if they show up at all in answer to a jury summons, many try to get out of duty, at a far higher rate than here. Just seating a jury for a corruption charge can take more than a day.”

“Plus, they don’t see jury duty as a fundamental part of citizenship,” he said. “That’s something I talk with our jurors about every time. This is us, taking ownership in our community. We don’t delegate that (jury) responsibility to someone else. We may delegate law writing to legislators and the running of government to a governor or president, but we each must value not just our right to vote but also our obligation to take our turn to hear cases.

“In America, we have the right to call upon our fellow citizens to make decisions about what justice is, in a given case. So, we all have a stake in living in a community where justice is done. I think our guests were really impressed with our jurors’ willingness to take that on and own it.”

The Republic of Georgia, bounded to the north by Russia, declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and began its dramatic conversion from a dependent communist state to an independent nation with a representative democracy form of government.

Jury trials are a fairly new way of handling Georgian cases, and until recently, were only used in cases of murder and public corruption. “Some of the older judges in the court system there are fearful of using juries to try cases, doubtful that jurors will get it right or know what to do,” Studdard said. “So they want to stay with judges, as professionals, making all the decisions in these cases, because that’s all they’ve ever known. But there are many who have experienced the jury process and say, ‘this is good, our country needs this.’”

The U.S. Embassy in the capital city of Tbilisi, Georgia, is assisting the Republic’s judiciary by conducting a series of activities both in that nation and in America. Studdard has joined Mike Cuccaro, assistant director the State of Georgia’s Administrative Office of the Courts, and judges from Whitfield and Cobb counties in training and mentoring the Georgian judges over the course of the project, which is expected to last several months.

The team spent a week in the Republic of Georgia in February, observing court proceedings and consulting with their counterparts on a variety of judicial and courtroom management subjects. Then last week, the Georgian judges spent several days in Cobb County Superior Court observing a murder trial, then traveled Wednesday to McDonough to observe misdemeanor court proceedings in Henry County State Court.

“Rather than just telling them how we as judges manage our court business, we decided it would be more meaningful to bring them here and let them see for themselves,” Studdard said. “Jury trials over there take weeks. They got to watch an entire trial in a single day in my court. They were amazed and excited.”

That Henry County can play a small role in that nation’s judicial system transformation is a thrill to Judge Studdard. “It’s exciting to me that you’ve got a country coming out of a closed Communist system, where people had no access to their justice system, now saying, ‘we want an open form of government, and we want a justice system that we can take part of, that we own, and doesn’t own us.’ I’m very proud that our U.S. Embassy there has stepped up and said, ‘we can help you get that.’”