Originally created 09/26/96

Sen. Walker may seek changes to circuit



State Sen. Charles Walker is studying the possibility of removing Columbia County from the Augusta Judicial Circuit, a move that could dramatically reshape local judicial politics.

Mr. Walker, D-Augusta, asked the Judicial Council of Georgia to evaluate the viability of creating a separate circuit for the Republican-dominated suburban county, or possibly shifting Columbia County into the adjacent Toombs Circuit.

The request was made in a Sept. 5 letter obtained by The Augusta Chronicle. Its catalyst was the August runoff defeat of black incumbent Superior Court Judge Bettieanne Childers Hart, who lost to white candidate Neal Dickert by 1,195 votes.

Columbia County's 71 percent support of Mr. Dickert swung the election; Judge Hart narrowly won Richmond County and handily won Burke County, the other two counties in the seven-judge Augusta Judicial Circuit.

Judge Hart's defeat put an "exclamation point and double underline" on the fact that minorities are under-represented in the judicial system, Mr. Walker said.

"Several of my constituents asked why Columbia County was in the Augusta district and I told them I don't know," Mr. Walker said Wednesday. "Columbia County needs their own judicial circuit."

Before that could happen, the Judicial Council must offer its recommendations and state legislation would have to be submitted within the General Assembly, said Nancy Kahnt, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, the support staff for the Judicial Council.

The council - a body of 26 Georgia judges - rarely recommends a new circuit be created, Ms. Kahnt said. One district change has occurred in the past five years.

Without the council's support, it would be unlikely a redrawn circuit would be passed by the Legislature, which historically has followed the council's direction.

The council generally considers several primary factors when reviewing a circuit change request: local judges' workload, future efficiency and growth trends, and costs, which can be substantial.

Creating a separate circuit with its own district attorney and an additional Superior Court judge could cost an extra $561,034 per year for state and local taxpayers, according to estimates by the AOC.

Dennis Sanders, district attorney of the Toombs Circuit, doesn't believe his circuit could absorb Columbia County.

Columbia County's 80,000 citizens are more than the population of the Toombs circuit's six counties, which include McDuffie and Lincoln counties.

"It would swamp us," said Mr. Sanders, a Democrat. "We're having a hard time keeping up with the current demand. It would be an avalanche."

Columbia County Republican Party Chairman Duncan Wheale said isolating the county in its own judicial circuit would be inefficient and help foster a separatism between the two communities.

"It would be as if you created an invisible wall," said Mr. Wheale, an attorney who supported Mr. Dickert in the recent election. "People will start to think they're autonomous. It's important to keep that unity."

Augusta State University political science professor Ralph Walker said he believes a system of governor-appointed judges would help limit politics in the courts and address concerns of fairness.

Such a system, which exists in some states, would allow the electorate to vote a judge out based on his or her record at the end of a term, said Dr. Walker, no relation to the senator.

Dr. Walker said he wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Walker accomplishes the circuit switch if he really wants to.

"Charles Walker is a very, very powerful senator," Dr. Walker said. "If he puts his mind to something he usually gets it done. It may take awhile, but he's a very astute politician."

Mr. Walker said the inquiry is an initial study and he will decide what to do following the Judicial Council's ruling.

District Attorney Danny Craig was in court Wednesday and didn't return a phone message left at his office.