Now that a new Georgia Supreme Court justice has been appointed, Gov. Sonny Perdue will finally get around to appointing a fifth judge to the local Alcovy Judicial Circuit.
On Friday the Judicial Nominating Commission, the group that interviews judicial nominees and narrows them down to a list of finalists to give to the governor, sent out a letter to legal officials and citizens in the Alcovy circuit announcing that it was accepting nominations for the newly created fifth judgeship.
The nomination process will move quickly; all nominations should be submitted to the JNC by Sept. 8. The JNC will then send out questionnaires to the nominees, which must be completed by Sept. 28. Interviews will be held in Atlanta on Oct. 13 At that point the JNC will choose up to five finalists to present to Perdue. However, there is no timetable for the governor to make a decision after he receives the list of finalists. Candidates must be at least 30 years old, have been a citizen of Georgia for at least three years, and have practiced law for at least seven years.
Originally, the fifth judgeship was expected to be filled by July 1, the start of FY2010, but Alcovy Chief Superior Court Judge John Ott said the Supreme Court nominations took precedence and delayed the process. Despite the delay, Ott said a caseload and calendar still had to be set up for a fifth judge, because the position was officially in the budget as of July 1. Retired Superior Court Judge Marvin Sorrells has been filling that spot using the budgeted money. Once Perdue appoints a fifth judge, Sorrells will step down, Ott said.
A fifth judge has been needed for sometime, because for the past couple of years the Alcovy circuit judges were handling the largest caseloads in the state, Ott said.
Sen. John Douglas said that the last appointed judge was a Walton County resident, so by traditional rotation the next judge will be a Newton County resident. Ott said that the new judge will be housed in the Newton County Judicial center, because Newton County has a larger population and; therefore, the greater need for an on-site judge. Also Newton County’s facilities were better able to accommodate more offices for the judge, his secretary and an accompanying assistant district attorney and assistant public defender, which are required to be added by law when a new judge is added.
Normally, a law clerk is also funded by the state, or by the counties if the state has no available money. However, Ott said because of the financial woes of the state and counties, another law clerk is not expected to be hired this year. The state normally provides furniture and equipment for at least the judge’s and his secretary’s offices, but Ott said the state continues to cut the judges’ budgets, so furnishings could be in jeopardy.
In order to provide the offices, the Newton County Judicial Center is going to be remodeled; the current second floor grand jury chambers will be turned into the offices. This location was chosen because it is next to the existing judges chambers.
Tuesday the Board of Commissioners approved Sunbelt Builders to construct the offices at a cost of $72,373.72. Administrative Assistant John Middleton said the construction was expected to be completed within three months.
At the meeting, District 5 Commissioner Tim Fleming questioned the expense of adding another office during this difficult budget year. He asked if some existing offices and space could be used until the budget situation improved. However, he said he called Judge Samuel Ozburn on Thursday and Ozburn said even the current situation is cramped. Ott, who normally works in Walton County, said that when he stayed in Newton County he had to share office space with the Newton judges.
"We need to add onto the courthouse, but that’s been pushed back. We’ve way out-grown the courthouse. It was built at a time when we had three judges. Then we added another judge and now we’re on the fifth judge; they will all have to use three courtrooms. We really don’t have any room. We’re trying to fit four judges into two offices as it is," Ott said.
In addition, Fleming said Friday that he learned that the money for the remodeling was originally budgeted in FY2008, so that money is not coming out of the current budget.
However, the county is expected to have to at least partially fund some new county employees related to the new judge. Ott said the new assistant district attorney and assistant public defender may require additional staff.
Douglas said he has a nominee for the fifth judgeship in mind, but he is not ready to announce who he will support. However, whoever is appointed Douglas said he is looking forward to getting the current judges some help.
"We need to get some help on the bench. I know the judges will appreciate having a new colleague," Douglas said.