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Posted: January 17, 2010 12:00 a.m.

5th judge may not be sworn in until July

Court system still short-handed

District Attorney Ken Wynne will most likely not be sworn in as the fifth Superior Court Judge of the Alcovy Judicial Circuit until at least July 1.

Alcovy Chief Justice John Ott recently received a call from the governor's office telling him to prepare to remain at the status quo - no permanent fifth judge.

The governor has made a handful of judicial appointments recently, but he is considering not swearing in the judges in an attempt to save the state money, said Press Secretary Chris Schrimpf. When a judge is sworn in, not only does the judge have to be paid, but the state also has to pay for a secretary, an assistant public defender, an assistant district attorney and office equipment.

"In the difficult budget time we're having now, it may better, or possibly easier, for the system to budget for a new judgeship at the beginning of a new fiscal year, as opposed to having to make further cuts now to fit these positions in the budget," Schrimpf said.

The state's new fiscal year will begin July 1, and Ott said he was told Wynne is more likely to be sworn at that point. The state legislature may cut $1 billion or more from the budget this spring.

"Last June we found the state was running out of money and was having trouble paying the June bills. They didn't want to get in the same spot," said Ott. "I'm almost certain they're going to wait until July."

Wynne said he wasn't necessarily disappointed by the news, and will use the time to continue to prepare for his judgeship and to help Chief Assistant District Attorney Layla Zon prepare to succeed him as District Attorney.

"It's certainly understandable in these types of economic times. We all want to work together to do everything we can to ease the burden," Wynne said. "Obviously I'll be ready to go whenever I'm sworn in. I don't mind waiting because it allows more time for transition. It will not be dead time by any means."

In the meantime, Senior Judge Marvin Sorrells, who has been serving since last summer, will continue to fill in as a temporary fifth judge. Ott said the county has been very fortunate to have Sorrells filling in, because he knows the county and staff. The other option would have been to have a rotating schedule of visiting judges from other counties.

Sorrells was able to be hired, because the state had already provided money for a fifth judge as of last July 1. A fifth judgeship was created to handle the Alcovy Circuit's increased load. The Alcovy Circuit contains Newton and Walton counties. Since Sorrells came on, the county has slowly increased his caseload to match that of the existing four judges.

However, even as Sorrell's workload has increased, he has continued to accept part-time pay in an effort to help the county save money. If Wynne isn't sworn in until July 1 or later, Sorrells has said he is willing to stay on as long as needed, Ott said.

The judges have also been sharing secretaries and law clerks. Each judge normally has a law clerk, which is paid for by Newton or Walton counties.

The district attorney and public defender's offices have also been making due. Normally, each judge requires two district attorneys and two public defenders, one in each county, because each of the judges hears cases in both Newton and Walton counties.

The state pays for one attorney and one defender, and the counties often cover the cost of the other. However, because of the county's budgets each office is making due with only the state paid position. Both Wynne and Public Defender Anthony Carter said they'll need another employee soon. Carter's office in particular was already shorthanded before another judge was added.

Once Wynne becomes a judge, he will have an office. A $72,000 remodeling project at the Newton County Judicial Center was completed earlier this year, as the grand jury room was converted into a fifth judge's office. Ott said the office was completed but had no furniture as of last week. Sorrells is currently working out of the visiting judge's office in Walton County.


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