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Columbia County launches its new court system

Scales of justice
Scales of justice(WRDW)
Published: Jul. 22, 2021 at 8:10 AM EDT|Updated: Jul. 22, 2021 at 8:22 AM EDT
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EVANS, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - After months of planning, preparation and legal challenges, Columbia County starts its own court system today after a split from the Augusta Circuit.

The new Columbia County court system will consist of:

  • Three Superior Court judges, James G. Blanchard, Sheryl B. Jolly and Judge J. Wade Padgett.
  • Newly appointed District Attorney Bobby Christine, who was the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney before leaving the post after Joe Biden took the presidency.
  • Public Defender Mack Taylor.
  • The Community Services Division.

The split-off from the Augusta Circuit comes as a result of State Bill 9, passed by the Legislature and pushed by the Columbia County Board of Commissioners as a cost-saving measure.

The Augusta Circuit will now consist of Richmond and Burke counties.

The judicial split hasn’t gone without legal challenges, including assertions that it’s racially motivated after voters in the Augusta Circuit selected their first Black district attorney, Jared Williams. Christine was appointed as the Columbia County district attorney by Gov. Brian Kemp.

Despite those challenges, the state Supreme Court this week decided to allow the split to move forward starting today.

Even after that decision, a more than 1,400-page filing by the Black Voters Matter Fund on Wednesday asked the Supreme Court to reconsider.

A look at the costs

“The main reason of this request was to gain control of fiscal accountability which in turn would result in savings to the taxpayers of Columbia County,” Columbia County said in a news release issued Thursday morning,

Columbia County adopted the 2021-22 budget on June 15, which showed a savings of approximately $565,000 by operating its own judicial circuit, according to the news release.

When broken down, the county said, the savings include:

  • $346,000 for the district attorney.
  • $66,000 for Superior Court.
  • $129,000 for the Public Defender’s Office.
  • $23,000 for Juvenile Court.

The offices of the District Attorney, Public Defender, Community Services Division, and Juvenile Court are located in the new Justice Center Annex, 7045 Evans Town Center Blvd. in Evans.

The annex will also house the courtroom for Juvenile Court in the near future.

The Superior Court will continue to operate out of the Justice Center.

How we got here

Lawsuits and a temporary restraining order had held the split on hold, pushing back its intended start date from the beginning of this month.

But according to an order released by the State Supreme Court late Tuesday afternoon, the split can move forward.

However, in a more than 1,400-page filing on Wednesday, the Black Voters Matter Fund asked the court to reconsider allowing the split to move forward.

“This appeal involves complex, new legal issues and it has far-ranging implications for the Augusta Judicial Circuit and the State of Georgia,” the filing states. “The underlying appeal involves one of the first challenges raised under the recent amendment to Georgia’s constitution whereby the State waives sovereign immunity related to declaratory actions. It also involves the constitutionality underlying the creation of a new judicial circuit. The implementation of SB 9 would have serious administrative, legal, and financial impacts on the affected counties and the State of Georgia.”

READ THE FULL FILING FROM THE BLACK VOTERS MATTER FUND:

A lawsuit alleged the split violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the due-process clause of Georgia’s Constitution.

The plaintiffs argued the split is not fair to Columbia County voters since Gov. Brian Kemp chose their district attorney.

On July 12, a Superior Court judge ruled the split is constitutional.

The plaintiffs have filed an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court. The cases were docketed and are scheduled for the court’s November calendar.

But the court said Tuesday that in the meantime, the split can move forward.

READ THE SUPREME COURT’S ORDER:

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