Judges from State of Georgia visit Republic of Georgia

By Michael Cuccaro

“Gamarjoba!” is a word heard many times by the delegation from the State of Georgia Judiciary when it visited their counterparts in the Republic of Georgia (the “Republic”), some 6,300 air miles and eight time zones away. 

"Gamarjoba" means hello in the Georgian language, and the one-week assessment by the Georgia delegation was filled with meetings, from the massive City Court of Tbilisi to the Court of Appeals, Supreme Court, and High School of Justice.  Meetings were also held at the U.S. Embassy and with other assistance organizations such as the European Union.

The Republic is a small country of nearly four million people, located between Russia and Turkey.  It has an ancient feel.  The territory that is Georgia has always been the crossroads of the ancient world.  Greeks, Persians, and local nations interacted to create a rich culture.  Georgians speak a unique language and theirs is the only Caucasus language with an ancient literary tradition.  Similarly, it has buildings still in use that date back to the sixth century.  History is represented at almost every turn.  Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the renewed independence of Georgia as a Republic, this crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and Asia has shown a great commitment to reforms using U.S. and Western European models.

Tbilisi trip

Evolving a new Georgian system of justice has required persistent commitment by the government.  Entrenched attitudes and processes have made progress difficult, sometimes requiring dramatic moves—in 2005 then-president Mikhail Saakashvili fired all 30,000 traffic police to combat corruption.  In 2009, Georgia amended its Criminal Procedure Code to introduce U.S.-style jury trials.  With help from the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Center for State Courts, Georgia began to slowly phase in jury trials.  Most recently, the number of crimes that have the option of a jury trial has been increased dramatically.  Furthermore, the option of jury trials has been expanded nationwide.

The City Court of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, has endured many of the growing pains that come with implementing the jury trial system.  Some opponents of the system worry that in such a small country, jurors will be partial due to familiarity with defendants.  Others point to the cost of summoning, juror service and the near impossibility of sequestration.  Voir dire can stretch for months, and the trial itself can last another month.  This puts a tremendous strain on jurors.  Others, familiar with the trial system of old, disapprove of juries since they can result in “not guilty” verdicts!  This highlights a difference in our legal cultures, where in the United States the jury system, fact-finding and impartiality are all something we in the United States may sometimes take for granted.

The State of Georgia assessment team traveled to the Republic of Georgia in February to talk to their counterparts and assess the operation of Republic courts, focusing on jury trials.  The effort is the result of a cooperative agreement between Judicial Council/AOC and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs at the U.S. State Department (INL). 

The team members included:

Judge James BodifordSenior Superior Court Judge Jim Bodiford, team lead (at right)

Senior Superior Court Judge Jack Partain

Judge Ann Harris, Cobb Judicial Circuit

Chief Judge Ben Studdard, Henry County State Court

Mike Cuccaro, Judicial Council/AOC

Says Bodiford, “I am very proud of our team as we have members who have tried scores of jury trials.  We can share our knowledge of best practices and perhaps also advise of procedures that have not worked as well as hoped.“

Supported by INL and U.S. Embassy staff, the assessment team met with judges, prosecutors, court staff and educators, as well as representatives from other agencies involved in justice reform in the Republic.  The main concerns identified by the assessment team were:  (1) the duration of jury trials; (2) judges adjusting to increased authority to run their courtrooms; (3) opportunities to streamline some court processes in cooperation with legislators, judges and court administration; and (4) a need to advance arguments for the continuation and improvement of jury trials in the Republic of Georgia.

In May 2017, a delegation of judges from the Republic will visit the Cobb County Superior Court and Henry County State Court to learn more about U.S. jury processes.  Thereafter the assessment team will work with INL and the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi to create training materials and then return to the Republic to continue the exchange of judicial experience.  Concludes Bodiford, “Our team will be able to assist in jury trial management techniques because there is a willingness on the part of the Georgian Judiciary to accept the help, and we have a deep history in our country of the right to a trial by jury.”




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