A change to the area court system could be in the works.
Columbia County is exploring the possibility of breaking from the Augusta Judicial Circuit, which also includes Richmond and Burke counties, to form its own standalone judicial circuit.
Scott Johnson, the county manager, says that forming a separate circuit has been under consideration for a couple of years. He says the county could save between $500,000 and $1 million as a standalone circuit.
“It would give Columbia County the autonomy to be able to make our own choices as to how we operate,” he says. “Do you want your county residents to have a full say in how much they spend, who they elect, how they operate?”
Johnson denies speculation that the election of Jared Williams, an African American, to the office of district attorney was the impetus for the move. Williams defeated incumbent Natalie Paine in November.
“It’s nothing more than a financial issue,” says Johnson. “The commissioners would have no problem working with any district attorney.”
He says the timing wasn’t right in the past because too many judges resided in the county, a criterion that could prevent Columbia County from qualifying to form its own circuit, according to a 2018 analysis.
However, the retirement of Judge Michael Annis in 2020 left Columbia County with three judges in residence. Johnson says that an updated study likely would call for three judges to live in the county.
“This is in the hands of the state legislature,” he says. “All we did is make a request that they look at it.”
The process would go through the General Assembly just like any other bill, he says. A state senator or representative would draft a bill, and the legislature would hold committee hearings and seek public input.
If passed by both chambers, then the bill would go to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature. The governor would appoint a DA until a special election could be held to fill the position.
A new circuit could be in place as early as July.
“We will proceed according to the decision,” Johnson says. “”We will continue to enjoy the good relationship we have if we stay in the circuit.”
Last fall, the county commissioners also voted to purchase the 32,000-square-foot, five story TaxSlayer building in Evans for $6.5 million. The building will house the juvenile court system and the Department of Family and Child Services. The nearby courthouse will be renovated to hold superior court.