Originally created 10/01/00

Area might get another judge



The Augusta Judicial Circuit is in the No. 2 spot for an additional judgeship.

The circuit, composed of Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties, has been selected by the Judicial Council of Georgia for an eighth judgeship for the Superior Court bench.

"It would mean we would have some additional help," Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr. said. "Probably the area that needs it most is the area of domestic relations."

On behalf of the seven current Superior Court judges, Chief Judge Fleming asked the Judicial Council of Georgia for a study to determine the need for an additional judgeship, he said.

The council's Administrative Office of the Courts performed the analysis, taking into account such statistics as caseload, judges' hours and open cases. It determined this year that the Augusta Judicial Circuit ranked second in need, behind only the Gwinnett Judicial Circuit.

The council's recommendation doesn't mean a new judgeship is a done deal, however. The recommendation goes to the General Assembly for a vote and, if approved, then to the governor for his signature.

"Usually they (legislators) follow the council's recommendations pretty closely," said Billie Bolton, the council's public information officer.

This year, the council is recommending new judgeships, in order, for the Gwinnett, Augusta, Rome and Atlanta judicial circuits.

The start-up for a judgeship in 1999 was estimated to cost state taxpayers between $218,000 and $282,000, Ms. Bolton said. The cost includes not only the judge's salary and benefits but also those for a secretary, an additional prosecutor, a court reporter and office expenses, she said. Most of that cost will be an annual expense thereafter, she said.

Chief Judge Fleming and Ms. Bolton said it will be up to the General Assembly to decide whether Augusta Judicial Circuit gets the new judgeship, and when that will happen and whether the new judge will be first appointed by the governor or elected by voters in the three counties.

If the General Assembly approves the new judgeship and decides Gov. Roy Barnes should appoint an attorney to the position, those who want the job would submit their names to the state's Judicial Qualifications Commission, Chief Judge Fleming said. The commission would screen the applicants and narrow the list of names for the governor to pick the new judge.

The last time the council recommended a new judgeship for the Augusta Judicial Circuit's Superior Court bench, in late 1994, two judgeships were added.

Since then, according to the analysis by the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Augusta Judicial Circuit in 1999 had 2,433 total case actions, a 7 percent increase from 1995 to 1999.

While the Gwinnett Judicial Circuit had fewer actions at 2,185 in 1999, it represented a 17 percent increase from 1995 to 1999. Gwinnett has seven Superior Court judges, the same number as Augusta.

In the Augusta circuit, 1,137 actions were open at the end of 1999, with a backlog of 816, giving it the seventh-highest backlog in Georgia, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. Gwinnett had 714 open actions at the end of the year and a backlog of 318, ranking it 34th in the state.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226.