Officials close to the debate as to whether to split the Alcovy Judicial Circuit or to add a fifth judge say a decision one way or the other is close at hand.
Rep. Robert Mumford (R-Conyers) said he expects his bill to split the Alcovy Judicial Circuit, currently comprising both Newton and Walton Counties, to be voted on by the House Judiciary Committee within the next few days.
Mumford's bill to split the circuit (HB 1006) has four co-sponsors including Rep. Doug Holt (R-Covington) and Rep. John Lunsford (R-McDonough). Another bill (HB 1254) introduced by Mumford and co-sponsored by Holt and Lunsford would add a fifth judge to the Alcovy Circuit. Both bills are in the Judiciary Committee
Mumford and Newton County Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn will be meeting today with the chairman of the Judiciary Committee,
Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) to discuss the option of splitting the circuit or adding a fifth judge. Mumford has already met with Gov. Sonny Perdue to discuss the split.
HB 1006 would split the caseload of the Alcovy Judicial Circuit by creating a new Walton Judicial Circuit. Newton County would remain under the Alcovy Judicial Circuit. Two Alcovy Superior Court Judges, John Ott and Eugene Benton who both live in Walton County, would leave the Alcovy Circuit for the Walton Circuit.
Judge Ozburn and Judge Horace Johnson would remain in Newton County with the Alcovy Judicial Circuit. HB 1006 also calls for the creation of a new district attorney position for the Walton Circuit. Ken Wynne, district attorney for the Alcovy Circuit, would stay in Newton County.
The estimated cost of splitting the circuit is $640,000 a year. This is the second consecutive year Mumford has introduced a bill to split the circuit. The cost of adding a fifth judge to the Alcovy Circuit is estimated to be $600,000 annually.
As the cost of adding a fifth judge is almost as much as the cost of splitting the circuit, Mumford and Ozburn said they believe it is more economically efficient to split the circuit.
"We're going to need some type of relief because we're going at 110 percent," Ozburn said. "We're just constantly in court. We just don't want things to back up so that people are having to wait years for the case to come to court. It's not good for anyone for a case to be delayed for any long period."
According to Ozburn the average caseload for a judge in Georgia is 2,200. Right now the average caseload for an Alcovy Judge is 2,800 Ozburn said.
"I'm thinking that a circuit split may be more efficient but that's not my call," Ozburn said. "Basically we're just leaving it up to the legislature and the governor as to what will be enacted."
Mumford said he is hopeful the bill to split the Alcovy Circuit will pass, but if it doesn't he said he is optimistic the circuit will get a fifth judge.
"We are hoping that the governor is going to be in favor of [splitting the Alcovy Circuit]," Mumford said. "Clearly the governor has to be concerned about the funds.
If they split one circuit, there may be other circuits that are interested in splitting, and I think that's what his office is studying now."
A recent study by the Administrative Office of the Courts of Georgia placed the Alocvy Judicial Circuit at the top of the list of court circuits in need of additional judges.
"We are number one on the list because of the very high caseload in the counties," Mumford said. "I think the question is, which is it going to be? Is it going to be another judge or a circuit split?"
According to Ozburn if the circuit was split, the judges in the Alcovy Circuit would wind up with a higher caseload because Newton County is experiencing a 15 percent higher caseload than Walton County.
Ozburn estimated if the circuit were to be split, he and Judge Johnson would each end up with approximately 3,100 cases while Judges Benton and Ott would each be left with 2,400 cases.
Despite the higher caseload, Ozburn said he was in favor of the split as he saw it as a necessary first step in streamlining the circuit. Once the circuit is split Ozburn said he would be in favor of the creation of a state court to handle misdemeanor cases and contract disputes for the county, leaving the felonies, child custody cases and divorces with the Newton County Superior Court.
"A state court would take that away from us, leaving us with the more serious crimes," Ozburn said.
Ozburn said any possibility of a state court is several years down the road. Ozburn said a state court would be entirely locally funded, but the court would generally pay for itself through revenue generated from fines.
"A study would be done concerning the projected cost based on current case load and how much money would be generated from operating a state court in terms of fines," Ozburn said. "From what I understand from other studies, a state court will pay for itself through fines."