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Suburban Georgia county asks for its own judicial circuit

December 6, 2020 GMT

EVANS, Ga. (AP) — A suburban Georgia county wants lawmakers to split it off into its own judicial circuit.

Columbia County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to ask the General Assembly to approve a split from the current three-county Augusta Judicial Circuit, which includes Richmond and Burke counties.

State Sen. Lee Anderson, a Grovetown Republican submitted a request last week for authorities to review whether Columbia County meets the requirements to become its own circuit, Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson told The Augusta Chronicle.

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A standalone circuit means voters in Columbia County would elect judges and the district attorney without input from voters in the other two counties.

State Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat, asked in 2018 for an analysis of circuit boundaries. The state Administrative Office of Courts found Columbia County didn’t meet the criteria for a standalone circuit.

Johnson said one finding in that study was that Columbia County had too many judges residing in the county. But Johnson said the number of judges in the current circuit who live in Columbia County is down to three, which would be likely the number needed for a new circuit.

Johnson also said that under the current arrangement, Richmond County sets the budget for the circuit and Columbia County is forced to pay its share, no matter the amount.

If Columbia County became its own circuit it could save between $500,000 and $1 million a year, Johnson said.

Much of those savings would be realized through recently acquired office space. Commissioners voted in October to buy a building for $6.5 million as a county judicial annex.

Superior Court Chief Judge Carl Brown wants to avoid the split, saying he’s forming a group called the “Committee to Preserve the Augusta Judicial Circuit.” Incoming District Attorney Jared Williams told local news outlets he opposes the move.

“Less than a month after voters elected the first African American district attorney, Columbia County leadership is now asking to leave,” Williams said. “I will not allow divisive politics or attempts to tear at the unifying fabric of our community deter me from executing my duties faithfully.”

Commission Chairman Doug Duncan told WJBF-TV the county would have moved forward with it even if Williams hadn’t been elected.

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“The ideas are mutually exclusive. We got down to three judges, bought the building and could save the money. It’s all about facts, and the facts are saving $1 million.”

State Rep. Mark Newton, an Augusta Republican whose district includes part of Columbia County, supports the move.

“We’re not going to let crime get a foothold here,” Newton says. “I think the teams will work together for what’s best in each of our communities because that’s what works to decrease crime in our area.”

If the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed the bill and Gov. Brian Kemp signs it, the new circuit could form as early as July 1.