The Judicial Workload Assessment Committee of the Judicial Council of Georgia voted on Friday to recommend to the full Council that Oconee County not be allowed to split from Clarke County in the Western Judicial Circuit.
The Workload Assessment Committee was responding to a Feb. 12 request from Marcus Wiedower and Houston Gaines, who represent both Oconee County and Clarke County in the Georgia House of Representatives.
The pair were requesting that the Judicial Council do what is known as a “circuit boundary study” to determine if the current configuration of the Circuit could be changed.
Staff of the Judicial Council told the Workload Assessment Committee that Oconee County has too low of a caseload to be placed alone in a judicial circuit.
As a consequence, it considered five alternatives, in which the two counties were merged into other judicial circuits.
The only “viable scenario,” according to the report, was a merger of the Western Circuit and the Alcovy Circuit. The Alcovy Judicial Circuit is made up of Newton and Walton counties.
The Workload Assessment Committee did not recommend that merger.
The full Judicial Council will hear the recommendation of the Judicial Workload Committee at its Aug. 13 meeting in Columbus.
Reason For Request
Wiedower and Gaines gave no explanation for their request in the two-sentence letter they sent to the Judicial Council in early February.
|Feb. 12 Letter From Wiedower, Gaines|
Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell at a Town Hall meeting last month tied the request by Wiedower and Gaines to the election of Deborah Gonzalez as District Attorney last November.
Jeff Hood had stepped to the microphone at that meeting and noted that Columbia County has been split off from the Augusta Judicial Circuit to create a single-county Circuit.
“Since Deborah Gonzalez was elected here last year there's been talk-- because of philosophy so different between Clarke and Oconee--that maybe the same thing should be, should happen here,” Hood said.
“I guess I'll say there was a lot of comments or questions about how to split a judicial district,” Daniell said. "There's processes you go through--through the state legislature.”
I asked Daniell to elaborate on that comment after the meeting, and he wrote to me in an email on July 8 that “The study was requested by our delegation based on comments from our citizens.”
Jeffrey Thorpe and Joseph Stanton Jr. from the Administrative Office of the Courts told Wiedower and Gaines in a memorandum dated July 13 that the analysis they did was limited to a number of criteria. None of those were political.
The Judicial Council and its Administrative Office Of the Courts is restricted to analyze requests for a boundary analysis based on caseload and workload, population, judges, and administration, the pair wrote.
“The analysis must consider not just the circuit requesting a circuit boundary adjustment but also any adjacent circuits,” they said.
“To be considered qualified, potential new circuits must not adversely impact the caseload, workload, or population balance between the existing circuits,” Thorpe and Stanton wrote.
At present, the Western Judicial Circuit has a Judicial Workload Percent (index) of 0.8, which is below the standard of 0.9, meaning resources could be reallocated that would increase the workload in the Circuit.
The Circuit has four judges, and the population per judge also is below the state average.
Even with the expected growth in the Circuit, the population per judge is expected to be lower than the state average, “showing no indication of future problems with having adequate judicial services due to a growing population,” the two wrote in the memo to Wiedower and Gaines.
The report states that two of the four judges reside in Oconee County and two live in Clarke County. In fact, three of the judges, Chief Judge H. Patrick Haggard, Eric Norris, and Lawton Stephens, are registered voters in Oconee County. Judge Lisa Lott lives in Clarke County.
“Per policy, the Judicial Council does not recommend single judge circuits,” the report states.
Thorpe and Stanton wrote that the circuit requesting a change “is required to submit financial and administrative information to the best of its ability to show judicial expenditures.
“Although some data were provided,” they wrote, “the data was not detailed enough to analyze the potential financial impacts of a circuit boundary adjustment.”
The team looked at six scenarios, but rejected immediately the first one–in which the Western Circuit is split, with Clarke and Oconee forming single-district circuits.
“Clarke County would have a caseload per judge and a population per judge above the statewide average,” the team wrote. Clarke would qualify for an additional judgeship with a Judicial Workload Percent of 1.4, they wrote.
Oconee County as a single-county circuit would have an index of 0.3, or well below the 0.9 threshold.
“Also, Oconee would have below statewide averages in both cases per judge and population per judge,” they said.
The team also considered leaving Clarke County stand as a single-county circuit and merging Oconee County into the Piedmont Circuit (serving Banks, Barrow and Jackson counties), the Alcovy Circuit (with Newton and Walton Counties), or the Ocmulgee Circuit (with eight other counties, including Morgan and Greene).
The team also considered moving Walton County into the Western Circuit and creating a new Circuit for Newton and Rockdale counties.
Only the option of a merger of the Alcovy and Western circuits was judged to be worth considering.
Only with the creation of that four county circuit of Clarke, Oconee, Walton, and Newton counties would the cases be evenly distributed, the population be evenly distributed, the number of judges be unchanged (at nine), and travel time be unchanged.
Three Other Requests
The Committee on Judicial Workload Assessment considered three other requests for a circuit boundary analysis.
These were for the Alcovy Judicial Circuit, the Augusta Judicial Circuit, and for the Griffin Judicial Circuit.
In none of these cases did the Judicial Workload Assessment Committee recommend changes be made by the Judicial Council.
Columbia County was withdrawn from the Augusta Judicial Circuit by the General Assembly during its session earlier this year, but that action has now been put on hold by the Georgia Supreme Court.
The analysis presented to the Committee on Judicial Workload Assessment on Friday were for the two-county Augusta Circuit consisting of Burke and Richmond counties.
Meeting Recording Not Released
The Committee on Judicial Workload, which consists of 17 members, met last Friday in Atlanta.
The meeting was recorded on Zoom, but Michelle Barclay, director of Communications for the Judicial Council, said “we generally do not share those recordings publicly.”
“As a judicial branch entity, we are not subject to the open records act or open meetings laws,” she said.
Barclay did confirm the action taken by the Committee on Judicial Workload regarding the four boundary analysis requests.
Wiedower and Gaines wrote to the Judicial Council seeking the circuit boundary study only two months after Gonzalez had been elected District Attorney in a special election runoff in December.
Gonzalez defeated Brian Patterson and James Chafin in the special election in November, but she got only 48.3 percent of the vote, necessitating the runoff. Chafin won in Oconee County.
Gonzalez and Patterson ran as Democrats, while Chafin ran without a party label. No one ran as a Republican.
Gonzalez then defeated Chafin in the runoff in December, though Chafin again won in Oconee County.
Gonzalez and Chafin live in Clarke County, while Patterson is from Oconee County.
Republicans haven’t fielded a candidate in the District Attorney race in the Western Judicial Circuit since 2004.
No discussion had taken place in the election or in the county independent of the election about problems with the allocation of resources in the Circuit or the Circuit boundaries.
Nature Of Districts
Wiedower’s District 119 is about evenly split between Clarke and Oconee counties, while Gaines’ 117th is dominated by Clarke County but includes three Oconee County precincts as well as parts of Barrow and Jackson counties.
East Oconee, Marswood Hall, and Bogart are the Oconee County precincts in the 117th House District.
Gonzalez and Gaines have been at odds politically in the past.
Gonzalez defeated Gaines in a special election for the 117th in 2017, but Gaines then defeated Gonzalez in 2018.
Gonzalez did not seek the House seat in 2020, running for District Attorney instead.
Neither Gaines nor Wiedower has ever carried Clarke County in an election, relying on strong support instead in Oconee County.
The desire to split the Western Judicial District is an Oconee County Republican issue.
Among the recent proponents have been former Watkinsville Mayor Bob Smith, who also has served in the General Assembly.
Note: The original post mistakenly said that Judge Haggard lives in Clarke County. The error was based on the report to the Workload Assessment Committee. Haggard has an Athens postal address, which may have led to the error in that report. I should have caught the error and apologize for missing it.