Columbia County Judicial Circuit to begin Thursday

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EVANS, Ga. (WJBF) — After 150 years, the Augusta judicial circuit will split up. In a ruling Tuesday, the Georgia Supreme court allowed Columbia County to leave the circuit and begin operations on July 22.

Governor Brian Kemp scheduled the split to occur on July 1. However, a lawsuit filed by attorney Willie Saunders delayed it. He claims S.B. 9, the bill that allowed Columbia County to leave the Augusta Judicial Circuit, is unconstitutional. Saunders also believes Columbia County leaders’ decision to split was racially motivated.

“This is our position — we think only after an African American was elected district attorney, was any effort made to split the circuit,” Jack Long, Saunders’ attorney, says.

“The fact that I can go through all of the requirements to be a voter, do everything that was required to cast that vote, and then at the end to not have that vote count, is tantamount to being three-fifths of a person,” Saunders said while testifying in a court hearing.

Beginning Thursday, Judges James Blanchard, Sheryl Jolly and Wade Padgett can take office in Columbia County. Bobby Christine and Mack Taylor, who have been appointed as district attorney and public defender respectively, can be sworn into their new roles. Cases can be divided with the Augusta Judicial Circuit.

“There will have to be a back and forth about how to untangle this,” State Sen. Harold Jones says.

Columbia County’s legal battle is not over yet. The Georgia Supreme Court will hear appeals on the case in November. At that time, justices could rule against Columbia County though the circuit will have begun operations. State Sen. Harold Jones believes the circuit will stand.

“You have a valid, legislative enactment,” he says. It’s a high bar to say the enactment [S.B. 9] is not unconstitutional. Also, if the Supreme Court had a major concerned, they would have done a supersedeas on the judge’s order and said, ‘No, you [Columbia County] need to hold back until November.’ The fact that they didn’t do that and that the bar is high, I’m pretty confident we are going to be moving forward.”

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