Columbia County looks to form judicial circuit

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COLUMBIA COUNTY, Ga. (WJBF) — Columbia County is looking to form its own judicial circuit and separate itself from Richmond and Burke Counties, which means it would have its own district attorney and judges if approved.

This week, the county’s Board of Commissioners voted to approve a resolution asking the Georgia state legislature “to take such action as necessary to approve Columbia County as a single-county judicial circuit.”

“In 2020, the stars aligned,” Doug Duncan, the chairman of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, explained. “It was the right thing to do for the taxpayers.”

The process began in 2018 when State Sen. Harold Jones asked the state to analyze the Augusta Judicial Circuit’s workload and geographical boundaries. It concluded Columbia County did not meet the required qualifications to form its own circuit because there were four Superior Court judges living in the county at the time, one more than the required number.

The idea resurfaced in 2020. Judge Michael Annis, one of the four judges living in Columbia County, retired. The county also bought the former TaxSlayer building in Evans to create a judicial annex. Commission Chairman Doug Duncan then asked for a financial analysis to be conducted to learn if the county could save money by having its own district attorney. He learned the county could save between $900,000 and $1 million each year.

“We do the best to run the county as a business. No business would punt on saving $1 million.”

The proposal was approved just weeks after Jared Williams defeated incumbent Natalie Paine to become Augusta’s next district attorney. WJBF reached out to both Williams and Paine for comment on Columbia County’s resolution. Paine did not respond. Williams provided this statement exclusively to WJBF:

“I am singularly focused on doing my job well, and my job is to protect the people of the Augusta Judicial Circuit. I trust the state legislature to make the right decision as to whether our circuit should be split. I do, however, believe it is important for the voters to understand the history. We have been a circuit since 1870. Fast forward 150 years, and less than a month after voters elected the first African American District Attorney, Columbia County leadership is now asking to leave. I will not allow divisive politics or attempts to tear at the unifying fabric of our community deter me from executing my duties faithfully. On January 1, I will be the District Attorney for all 3 counties in our unified circuit, and dedicate my efforts to keeping its citizens safe.”

Jared T. Williams, District Attorney-Elect

When asked if the district attorney election played any part in the resolution, Duncan said the county would have moved forward with it even if Natalie Paine was reelected.

“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.”

The resolution needs to be approved by the General Assembly and Governor Brian Kemp to take effect. It has the support of State Rep. Mark Newton, whose district includes Columbia County.

“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.”

*The story was revised on 12/4 to correct that State Sen. Harold Jones asked the state to analyze if Columbia County could form its own circuit in 2018 not State Sen. Lee Anderson

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