Last week’s appointment of three full-time juvenile court judges has raised concerns about the loss of the court’s diversity.
In 2007, the Augusta Judicial Circuit’s eight Superior Court judges broke nearly a century of tradition by appointing four part-time judges to a post traditionally filled by one full-time judge in Richmond County. The judges tapped two black men to fill half the seats: Willie Saunders and Ben Allen.
Both Saunders and Allen were reappointed in 2008 for the full four-year terms, but they were not brought back for second terms last week.
By keeping two incumbents, Judges Jennifer McKinzie and Doug Flanagan, and bringing in a new judge, Pamela James, there are no longer any black juvenile court judges.
Allen said the majority of young men and women coming through juvenile court, particularly in Richmond County, are black. It is important to have someone they can identify with on the bench, Allen said, because it encourages them and the community.
“It makes a difference,” he said. The judges “should have found a way to find someone of color for the bench.”
A message left for Saunders was not returned. Chief Judge Carlisle Overstreet was out of town and unavailable for comment, his secretary said.
Asked about the racial makeup of the court, Flanagan said he doesn’t see it as a black and white issue. Each judge is qualified and brings insight and experience to the job, he said.
The longtime judge for Richmond County was Herbert E. Kernaghan Jr., who died in November 2006. His position was replaced by four people in January 2007, which brought a total of seven juvenile court judges in the circuit, including Bill Sams and Preston Lewis in Burke County.
Sams was not reappointed in 2008 and James, who served for a year on juvenile court, withdrew her application. Lewis died in 2011.
McKinzie said she is excited about the opportunities presented by becoming a full-time juvenile court judge. She expects to become more visible in the community over the next four years and to implement new school programs.
“It’s a great honor and a great responsibility,” McKinzie said.
The longtime pattern was one judge for each county of the circuit: Richmond, Burke and Columbia.
Flanagan, for instance, has maintained a high profile in Columbia County for a dozen years. He is a regular speaker at Columbia County schools, where bomb threats written on bathroom walls and glued locks make headlines.
Flanagan said he is an active speaker in the community because he wants to keep young people out of his courtroom.
He also wants more participation from the community, particularly now that he has more time as a full-time judge.
Flanagan wants it known that “juvenile court is open to partnering with any civic or religious organization.”