The Georgia House of Representatives voted 96-70 Monday to approve the creation of a new judicial circuit in east Georgia.
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.
Senate Bill 9, sponsored by Senators Lee Anderson, Max Burns, and five others, would require Governor Kemp to appoint a new district attorney and then transfer three existing Superior Court judges in the Augusta 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 House approved the FY 2022 state budget earlier this month, which provided several million dollars to assist with the creation of the circuit, including:
- $1.3 million for the creation of the new Columbia County Judicial Circuit,
- $25,000 to create a juvenile judgeship for the circuit, and
- $1 million in new funding for public defenders in the circuit
The legislation also calls for local supplements on the salaries of the district attorney and the superior court judges.
The measure has been controversial in the region because of political undertones and studies by the Georgia Administrative Office of the Courts (GAOC), which indicated a new judicial circuit was not necessary or cost efficient.
Neither SB 9 nor the FY 2022 budget account for what will become of the exisiting judicial circuit should SB 9 become law.
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.
Because the House version of SB 9 includes changes to the original bill, it now heads back to the Senate for consideration. If the Senate approves it, SB 9 will go to Governor Kemp’s desk. If the Senate changes any part of the bill before voting on it again, the House will have to vote on the changes as well.