In the wake of an election upset in the Augusta Judicial Circuit last November when Democrat Jared Williams defeated Republican Natalie Paine, Augusta area lawmakers moved swiftly to initiate the process to isolate the Columbia County community and create a new judicial circuit, a move critics and opponents say is motivated entirely by politics.
Current Judicial Circuit
Since 1870, the Augusta Judicial Circuit has comprised three counties – Burke, Columbia, and Richmond.
Burke County is the largest by geographical standards, but has a population of 22,300 and is lacking a substantial tax base, despite it being the county Plant Vogtle calls home. Columbia County has the second largest population pool, with 156,700, trailing Richmond County, which has a population of approximately 202,000.
Legislation to Split
By way of Senate Bill 9, sponsored by Senators Lee Anderson, Max Burns, and five others, Governor Kemp would appoint a district attorney and the three existing Superior Court judges in the Augusta Circuit, Judge James G. Blanchard, Jr., Judge Sheryl B. Jolly, and Judge J. Wade Padgett, would serve in the Columbia Circuit. Per the legislation, all open and pending civil and criminal cases in Columbia County would be plucked from the Augusta Circuit and moved to the Columbia County circuit once it was established. The bill also calls for a specific local salary and expenses supplement for the district attorney and judges in Columbia county in the amount that was once collected from all three counties – a notable increase in expenditures for Columbia County citizens.
Going forward, what’s left of the judicial circuit would leave DA Jared Williams and five judicial seats. Richmond County would pay 90% of the Augusta Judicial Circuits expenditures with Burke picking up 10%. As far as judicial and DA supplements go, Richmond would pay 80% of the difference in the local supplement and Burke would carry 20%.
The bill was filed on the third day of the legislative session, quickly passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee by a unanimous vote before making its way to the Senate floor where it was gained approval by the Senate body unanimously. Rep. Mark Newton is carrying the bill in the House and the measure was approved by the House Judiciary Committee last week with ease thanks to Chairman Chuck Efstration. Due to COVID-19 precautions, the usual process to allow testimony from the public has been stymied and virtual meetings have left lawmakers with hardly any commentary from opponents.
But more noticeably absent from the discussion, particularly by the Republicans in both chambers who campaign on fiscal responsibility and efficient government, is the financial impact of a split, one which would not impact Burke, Columbia, and Richmond counties exclusively.
Research on Splitting the Circuit
In metro Atlanta, the legislature approved Paulding County’s departure from the Tallapoosa Circuit to establish its own circuit almost 20 years ago. Paulding resembles Columbia County in a number of ways, including size, case load, and population, and spends $1 million more in actual operations than Columbia County’s $3 million proposal for judicial operations.
On December 4, 2020, a report was provided to Senator Lee Anderson by the Georgia Administrative Office of the Courts (GAOC). In it, a chart detailed the caseload for the current Augusta Judicial Circuit, which illustrated that it is Richmond & Burke counties that are already working at a higher caseload capacity than Columbia County. In fact, studies from the last 25 years all show that the circuit needs more resources, not fewer.
In 2018, Senator Harold Jones also commissioned data on a potential split particularly with regard to the alteration of a circuit boundary. The GAOC reported the cost would be approximately $850,000. On April 7, 2020, the same figure had increased to ‘exceed $1 million.’ These costs are irrespective of the annual budget for the circuit operations.
The Judicial Council of Georgia also told Senator Jones in 2018 that the circuit did not meet the recommendation for a judicial circuit alteration.
In 1996, then-state Senator Charles Walker asked the Judicial Council of Georgia to look into the actual administrative costs of splitting the Augusta Judicial Circuit. At the time, the Council estimated a split would cost just over $561,000, which, in 2021 standards amounts to over $925,000.
Superior Court Judge Daniel Craig also presented numbers to the public, as published in The Augusta Chronicle before the legislation was officially filed. He reported that:
- Columbia County taxpayers could expect an annual additional expense of $1,133,941.
- For Richmond County taxpayers, a split would mean an additional annual expense of $1,633,846.
- For Burke County taxpayers, it means an additional $427,764.
Further, the GAOC publicly stated “To suggest that there would be a cost savings to split a circuit is very likely not the case due to efficiencies of staffing in a larger circuit.”
Nevertheless, Anderson told The Chronicle in December 2020 that “[t]he issue needs to be studied” and “It’s a work in progress.”
Attaching to Another Circuit
If Columbia were to split, Burke and Richmond, if they could not sustain their own judicial circuit, would have to attach to the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit, which extends down to Effingham County, or to the Middle Judicial Circuit, which extends over to Toombs County. Either way, the circuits would expand in geographical size to more closely resemble a Congressional district than a judicial circuit in which staff and judges are frequently moving between courthouses.
Additionally, in July 2020, the Georgia legislature added a fourth Superior Court judge to the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit to help with the spike in felony caseloads in Bulloch and Effingham counties, which would quickly be offset by one or two new counties.
The Judicial Council of Georgia also recommended against such an attachment back in 2018 following a comprehensive study of the caseloads, data, and resources.
The Committee to Preserve the Augusta Judicial Circuit was formed in early January in an effort to halt movement on the legislation and to advocate publicly in favor of keeping the judicial circuit as a unit. A number of attorneys, business owners, and citizens serve on the committee, which has had limited time to engage the public or even lobby legislators.
In a statement, the committee said, “Our Committee has one goal: preservation of the Augusta Judicial Circuit. We believe our three counties benefit from continuing together as a single unit. This is not based solely on history, but each county partner in the circuit brings value and plays a vital role in judicial economy, coordination of the delivery of legal services and ensuring diversity. The Committee is committed to evaluating and addressing the issues to preserve the Augusta Judicial Circuit.”
SB 9 Now
As it stands now, SB 9 would need to pass out of the House Rules Committee before it could be voted on by the House body as a whole. If approved, it would be up to Governor Brian Kemp to sign or veto the bill.
Anderson 2020 Data from GAOC
Jones 2018 Study from Judicial Council of Georgia
Read the full study here.