COVINGTON, Ga. — One local legislator says chances of Newton County’s request to break away from the Alcovy Judicial Circuit and create its own was unlikely to happen.
District 112 State Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead, who represents portions of Newton and Morgan counties, said he found the Newton County Board of Commissioners' decision to request a circuit split “very surprising” and unnecessary.
“I don’t see any reason for it,” Belton said. “It’s a surprise move that I can’t see a reason for making because, to my knowledge, the caseload is manageable.”
Belton said it was also surprising due to the fact that a proper study needed to be completed and the governor needed to make room in the state’s budget for such a move — of which neither had been done.
Newton commissioners voted 3-2 during its meeting Tuesday, Feb. 2, to formally request legislators to consider breaking up the Alcovy Judicial Circuit that includes Walton and Newton counties and allow Newton to create its own single-county circuit.
Belton and other representatives had planned to meet Wednesday night or Thursday to further discuss the proposal, but due to the manner of the vote, he said the chances of state legislators moving the issue forward was “very unlikely.”
Because the potential bill would involve multiple counties, Belton said it’s not just up to Newton County legislators to consider.
“Generally, on a local bill, we don’t like to have more than one opposing vote. We prefer it to be approved unanimously or only one opposing vote for us to push it further,” Belton said. “Since it’s not local, it’s very unlikely that the [state] leadership will take this any further, or the governor for that matter.”
If the county’s request were to be approved, Belton said there was “a long road ahead.” Specifically, he said splitting the judicial circuit could take up to five years, if legislation were passed.
And if the circuit were to be split, Belton said doing so could get expensive.
“To my understanding, the governor would have to budget this in,” Belton said, “and now is not a great time fo add to the budget. There are a lot of other issues including [several education and health care issues].”
In a recent statement to The Covington News, District Attorney Randy McGinley said the commissioners’ move to break away and create its own circuit was a political ploy.
“This resolution was added to the agenda during the afternoon of the meeting date, mere hours before the scheduled meeting,” he stated. “It appears that such last minute additions to the agenda are allowed when the matter is urgent or time sensitive. However, not a single reason why this matter was urgent was discussed. Instead, a copy of the proposed bill was already attached to the proposal which clearly indicates that this proposal was already in the works well before the day of the meeting. The late addition to the agenda precluded anyone with knowledge of the court system, the DA’s office, and the potential financial impact to appear at the meeting ready to discuss the matter.
“I personally found out about the resolution just hours before the meeting time. I was unable, with such extremely short notice to have someone pick up and care for my 4- and 1-year-old daughters.
“The county commission has the power and right to vote on whatever resolutions they choose. But it is disappointing that a vote on a complicated, important subject would be held with so little information on the subject. The last minute addition of this resolution and the vote were based on one thing, and one thing only: partisan politics.”
McGinley echoed Belton’s thoughts on the potential cost of breaking up the circuit.
“Splitting the circuit would not be without a cost to the people of the counties,” McGinley said. “The DA’s budget from each county split numerous costs. For example, the cost of expensive and necessary software is shared by both counties. The state creating a new DA costs taxpayers everywhere. Judges’ caseloads would grow. This means that it would take longer for cases to be resolved. This means that individuals awaiting trial while in jail would have to wait longer for their day in court. If the speed of cases coming to court was truly a reason, then propose the addition of a state court.
“Additionally, it is impossible to calculate the cost of losing the knowledge of the cases in the office. If the circuit was split, it would be naïve to think that there would not be people losing their jobs, people that work day in and day out to help our communities. With them would go priceless knowledge of open cases. A new DA would have no knowledge about these open cases that would include murders, rapes, child molestations, armed robberies, etc. I do not know how to put a number on the cost to victims of serious crimes.”
Newton County Chairman Marcello Banes has centered his reasoning for requesting a split on the increased caseload and, simply, at the request of others within the county. He told The Covington News there was no ulterior motive. However, during the meeting, District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he knew of Newton residents who had wanted to run for offices within the Alcovy Circuit but likely could not have won because they also had to campaign in Walton.
Candidates for Superior Court judge and DA must win a majority of the total votes cast in both counties to earn election.
A copy of the commissioners' formal request can viewed in its entirety below:
Within the request, commissioners called for legislation to be amended so the governor could appoint a district attorney for the proposed Newton Judicial Circuit for a term beginning July 1, 2021, through Dec. 31, 2022. After the initial term expires, a successor would be decided by voters.
The request also calls for three Superior Court judges to be plucked from the Alcovy Judicial Circuit, including Cheveda McCamy, Ken Wynne Jr. and Layla Zon — all Newton County residents — to serve on the proposed Newton Judicial Circuit. The circuit's chief judge would be determined based on who had served as Superior Court judge the longest. Expenses for the Newton Judicial Circuit not funded by the state would be funded by Newton County. Walton County would then be responsible for all expenses incurred by the Alcovy Judicial Circuit.