Judge puts Augusta Circuit judicial split on hold for now

Published: Jun. 15, 2021 at 1:24 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 15, 2021 at 1:58 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - A judge has issued a temporary restraining order that means Columbia County may not be getting its own court system — at least not as soon as planned.

A bill signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp would split up the Augusta Judicial Circuit, which now covers Richmond, Burke and Columbia counties.

Columbia County would get its own circuit, while Richmond and Burke counties would stay in the judicial circuit.

Promoted by Columbia County officials as a money-saving effort, the law is set to take effect July 1.

But it’s being challenged in court.

On one of those fronts, a civil lawsuit fighting the split-up was filed against Kemp as well as Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties. Voter rights, separation of powers and court access are all factors to be considered.

A judge issues a restraining order that puts on hold Columbia County's plans for its own court system.

Racial issues are also being brought up.

Senior Judge Gail S. Tusan’s removal from hearing the case is also being sought.

Tusan on Tuesday ordered those involved in the split to “immediately cease activities in the furtherance of the implementation of Senate Bill 9 and the creation of the Judicial Circuit for Columbia County.”

In issuing the restraining order that will last for 30 days, Tusan said the intent was “to preserve the status quo and prevent irreparable harm to the plaintiff and the public served by defendant counties.”

Tusan says the counties are “ordered to immediately cease activities in furtherance of the implementation of Senate Bill 9 and the creation of the judicial circuit for Columbia County.”

The lawsuit alleges the judicial split violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the due-process clause of Georgia’s Constitution.

The plaintiff says the move to split the circuit only came after the election of the circuit’s first Black district attorney, Jared Williams.

“Race was the sole factor in passing and signing Senate Bill 9,” the lawsuit alleges.

The suit says Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson has publicly stated one of the reasons for the split is that Williams got 33% of the vote in Columbia County and incumbent Natalie Paine got 66%, which “shows that this judicial split is being based upon race and that African American voters in Columbia County and in the entire Circuit are being disenfranchised.”

The lawsuit says the split will cost the counties and state more, not less, and that this was known by the Columbia County Commission and proponents of the split.

The lawsuit says the split will also leave the three Columbia County judges to work at 80% capacity and the five judges in the Augusta Circuit to work beyond capacity. It also alleges that proponents of the split haven’t considered the impact on the Augusta Judicial Circuit employees and health insurance, retirement.

It says the work of alternative justice venues such as drug court, veterans court, mental health court and problem-solving court “will be disrupted and the defendants in these counties will suffer harm.”

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