More Judicial Circuits Could Split After Columbia Exits

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Leaders in counties in at least three other Georgia judicial circuits are interested in splitting up after Columbia County successfully persuaded lawmakers to break it off from what had been a three-county Augusta Judicial Circuit.

The Administrative Office of the Courts tells The Augusta Chronicle that Oconee County could seek to split from Athens-Clarke County in the two-county Western circuit. Newton and Walton counties could split the two-county Alcovy circuit. And the Griffin circuit, which includes Fayette, Spalding, Pike and Upson counties, could fracture.

All those circuits have tensions among counties with different characteristics.

Newly elected District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez, the first Hispanic to lead the office of the prosecutor for Oconee and Athens-Clarke counties, announced after her election that her office would stop prosecuting marijuana possession, never seek a death sentence, and would stop recommending money bail.

Diane Baggett, Oconee County’s communications manager, says residents of the Republican-dominated area don't share Gonzalez's philosophy.

In the Griffin circuit, Fayette County remains opposed to the idea of splitting, said Fayette County Manager Steven Rapson. It's the largest county by population. Lawmakers rejected a bill to split the circuit in 2013. The Fayette County Commission at that time opposed a split, citing costs and other perceived problems, Rapson said.

In the Alcovy circuit, District Attorney Randy McGinley is a white appointee of Gov. Brian Kemp appointee who fended off a challenge in 2020 from Black candidate Destiny Bryant.

Newton County, with 112,000 people, is 48% white, while Walton County, with 95,000 people, is 77% white. Walton County’s public information officer declined comment.

For attorney Jack Long, who is suing to stop the split of the Augusta circuit, it’s a trend that reeks of racism. He argues that white-majority counties like Columbia will divorce themselves from more racially diverse jurisdictions. The Augusta circuit split followed the election of the first Black district attorney, Jared Williams, over white incumbent candidate Natalie Paine.

Columbia County officials say it’s not racially motivated, but simply the right time for the growing county to stand as its own judicial circuit.