Ceremony for Clerk of Georgia Court of Appeals Offers Glimpse into Political Climate

These have been difficult days for the judiciary and for the Court of Appeals in particular. There are three openings on the Court and two branches of government that seem to view the court system as an inconvenient hurdle standing in the way of law enforcement. Add to the mix the fact that yesterday was the retirement ceremony for William L. Martin, III, the Clerk and Court Administrator of the Georgia Court of Appeals for almost 20 years. While the ceremony was about the excellent work of Mr. Martin, remarks judges made at his retirement demonstrate that these have been difficult days at the Court.

Yvette Miller, currently the Chief Judge, battled back tears at several points during her presentation. She and several speakers mentioned that there have never been as many open seats on the Court as there are right now.

The governor is about to appoint two judges, and there is an open election for a third. Speaking of the governor, he appeared to be a silent character in yesterday’s events.

In describing Mr. Martin’s contributions to the Court over his tenure, Chief Judge Miller mentioned in particular his contributions over the past year. More particularly, she mentioned their trips together “across the street” to the state capitol where they had to meet with the legislative leadership to try to deal with sharp budget cut. She spoke of how she and Mr. Martin huddled up at her desk to find a way to keep the staff of the Court employed and to ensure the the work of the Court was done in spite of the fact that the House was gutting its budget (“gutting” is my word, not hers). Finally, when she presented Mr. Martin with the gift from the judges, she said in tears, “we all wanted you to have this, including Judge Bernes.”

His most recent great accomplishment was E-filing in the court, which has greatly streamlined the appellate process in that court and has benefitted my practice considerably.

On a more general note, Judge Ellington spoke of how difficult the job of Court of Appeals clerk is. First, the Clerk is the one real point of contact most parties before the Court will have. For the advocate who has a case before the court occasionally and who might not regularly appear for Appellate Section events or Oral Argument, there may never be contact at all with the judges. The Clerk is the public face of the institution.

Judge Ellington went on to discuss the diverse array of difficult people the Clerk must work with, including lawyers, county court clerks, many of whom are hostile to the appellate process, and judges.

Speaking from experience, I found Mr. Martin to be very helpful to me in my early years practicing before Court. He was always quick to return my phone calls, eager to offer advice, and a cheerful voice at the end of the phone when I was knee deep with a brief due. It turns out that he was that person to hundreds of other people who called him about their cases.

At the same time, he was meeting with hostile legislators and a governor who has done more, perhaps to set back the idea of an independent judiciary than anyone in the history of that office.

Justice Carley of the Supreme Court of Georgia presented a gift to Mr. Martin — the decision to give it was the first action that the Court has taken in a while that wasn’t decided by a 4-3 vote.

It was a touching ceremony. It was also a telling ceremony.

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