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Judges still unhappy as Augusta-area court split advances

January 20, 2021 GMT

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Judges are still unhappy about a plan to split a Georgia judicial circuit to give a suburban county its own court system and district attorney.

Columbia County officials, backed by their Republican lawmakers, want their county to have a separate three-judge circuit, leaving what has been the three-county Augusta circuit which includes Richmond and Burke counties.

Columbia County says the move would save money, but some have objected to a split which began moving forward weeks after voters elected the circuit’s first-ever Black district attorney.

Augusta commissioners, resigned that the Republican-dominated General Assembly would create a new circuit for Columbia, voted to support the move, under the condition that the remaining two-county Augusta circuit would have five judges.

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Burke County could also seek to join another already-existing circuit.

Two Republican state senators, Lee Anderson and Max Burns, have filed a bill creating the new circuit. Its first district attorney would be appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp and its first judges would be the three existing circuit judges who live in Columbia County.

Chief Superior Court Judge Carl C. Brown told The Augusta Chronicle that he was “very disappointed” with the bill.

“At the most critical time in the history of these United States of America, it flies in the face of scripture which clearly requires us to dwell together in unity,” Brown said Friday. “It flies in the face of the performance of this circuit, which is one of the best-performing circuits in this state.”

Brown said the circuit’s existing seven judges — one position is vacant — are handling a workload the state Judicial Council said was eligible for 10 judges.

The bill also “would effectively eliminate any African-American elected officials in Columbia County,” he said. Brown, who lives in Augusta, is the circuit’s only Black judge, although the Columbia County town of Grovetown has a Black council member, Deborah Fisher.

Columbia County Commission Chairman Doug Duncan said Friday that the bill appears headed to the governor’s desk.

“So far we’ve had good feedback,” Duncan said. “It’s a great path for Columbia County to be on. We expect it to pass.”

Augusta-Richmond County estimates it will cost an extra $1 million to make up for resources formerly shared with Columbia County.

Superior Court Judge Danny Craig said the bill “entirely ignores” state protocol for the creation of judicial circuits and judgeships. If the protocol was being followed, it would require a specific recommendation by the Judicial Council based on the relative needs of the 49 circuits, Craig said.