Sunday, August 15, 2021

Georgia Judicial Council Accepts Recommendation That Oconee And Clarke Remain Together In Western Judicial Circuit

***Final Action Rests With Legislature***

The Judicial Council of Georgia on Friday unanimously and without discussion accepted the recommendation of its Workload Assessment Committee that no change be made to the boundaries of the Western Judicial Circuit made up of Oconee and Clarke counties.

Chief Judge David T. Emerson of Douglas County, representing the Workload Assessment Committee, told the full Judicial Council that a change in the boundaries of the Western Judicial Circuit would not “improve the administration of justice” in the two counties.

The Workload Assessment Committee had reviewed a possible boundary change for the Western Judicial Circuit at the request of Marcus Wiedower and Houston Gaines, who represent Oconee County in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Oconee County Republicans voiced dissatisfaction with the boundaries of the Circuit following the election of Democrat Deborah Gonzalez as District Attorney in a special election to fill that spot last autumn.

The districts Wiedower and Gaines represent include parts of Clarke County, but Wiedower and Gaines, both Republicans, have been elected without carrying the segments of their districts in Clarke County because of their strong support in Oconee County.

Traditionally Democratic Clarke County dominates the two-county Western Judicial Circuit because it has three times as many residents. Republicans did not even field a candidate in the special election last year.

Chief Justice David Nahmias of the Georgia Supreme Court, presiding at the Judicial Council meeting on Friday, said that while the Judicial Council vote was unanimous, “it's up to the legislature to determine how to act” on the recommendation.

What Requested

On Feb. 12 Wiedower and Gaines asked the Judicial Council to do what is called a boundary study of the Western Judicial Circuit. The pair offered no reason for the request.

Official Portrait Chief Justice Nahmias

The staff of the Administrative Office of the Courts then undertook a study of the workload of the Western Judicial Circuit and reported to the Judicial Council’s Workload Assessment Committee.

The Workload Assessment Committee on July 16 made the decision, based on the staff report, not to recommend changes to the boundaries of the Western Judicial Circuit.

The staff and Workload Assessment Committee had responded to three other boundary study requests and had recommended against those as well.

The Judicial Council on Friday accepted the recommendation of no action on all four of the boundary study requests.

Staff Response To Wiedower And Gaines Request

The staff of the Judicial Council told the Workload Assessment Committee before that July meeting 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 Oconee and Clarke 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 staff did not address the political implications of the merger, but such a merger would make a new judicial circuit more evenly balanced politically.

In 2016, Republican Donald Trump got only 28.7 percent of the vote in Clarke County and 47.4 in Newton County, compared with 76.9 in Walton County and 67.4 in Oconee County. Clarke is the largest of the four counties, followed by Newton, Walton, and then Oconee.

The Oconee County Republican Party posted a link to my report on the Workload Assessment Committee recommendation on its Facebook page with this comment: “This decision means we just have to work harder.”

Staff Demands

Judge Emerson, in making the report of the Workload Assessment Committee on Friday, said the Committee had intended not to do any boundary studies this year but responded to what he termed “legislative interest.”

Screen Shot During Emerson Presentation 

“The time line for that is very difficult for the Committee,” he said.

“Basically the window is open all the way to June 1,” he said. “Any legislator can request that the Committee undertake a boundary study, and we had a number of senators and legislators who did write us to ask for four separate studies.”

Emerson said the staff had to start on June 1 to complete the studies and have them ready for the Committee by its meeting in July. That was necessary so that the Committee could have its recommendation ready for the Judicial Council in August.

“They have massive projects to undertake to do these studies and gather all this information in a very short period of time,” Emerson said.

Prior to Emerson’s Committee report, Supreme Court Justice Charles J. Bethel said that his Budget Committee was recommending an additional staff position be included in budget requests because of increased demands, including for circuit boundary assessments.

The Council approved those requests.

The Judicial Council of Georgia serves as the policymaking body for Georgia’s judiciary.

The Council is chaired by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia and consists of 28 members who represent every class of court and the State Bar of Georgia.

Background Of 2020 Election

Though Oconee County Republicans have voiced frustration with the election of Democrat Gonzalez, no one on the ballot in the special election was labeled as a Republican. No primary was held, so candidates simply chose the party label of choice when they qualified.

Official Portraits Of Council

Gonzalez and Brian Patterson ran as Democrats, and James Chafin ran without a party label.

Gonzalez defeated Patterson and 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 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.

Special Election

The circumstances leading up to the election were complex.

In July of 2019, long-time District Attorney Ken Mauldin, a Democrat, announced that he would retire at the end of his term on Dec. 31, 2020.

Gonzalez, a communication law expert, and Patterson, then Mauldin’s chief assistant district attorney, announced they would compete in the May Democratic primary. No Republican announced interest in the race.

Mauldin then unexpectedly decided to retire on Feb. 19.

With the Mauldin announcement, Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, had the opportunity to appointment a replacement for Mauldin.

If Kemp made that appointment by May 3, the state would hold a special election on Nov. 3 to replace Mauldin.

Under a 2018 law, Kemp could delay an appointment until after May 3.

If he did that, the district attorney he appointed would remain in office until an election in November of 2022.

Constitutional Challenge

When Kemp failed to make an appointment by May 3, Gonzalez filed suit in federal court, challenging the 2018 law on constitutional grounds because it eliminated the election.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Cohen in Atlanta found the Georgia law to be unconstitutional and on July 2 ordered Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to hold an election for the District Attorney of the Western Judicial Circuit on Nov. 3.

When the special election was called, Chafin entered the race with Gonzalez and Patterson.

Chafin also worked under Mauldin and then under Patterson in the District Attorney Office.

Missed Opportunities

Had Kemp appointed a Republican as District Attorney before May 3, that person would have been running as an incumbent in the special election.

Instead, he banked on appointing someone who would not have to stand for re-election until 2022. He lost that option because of the legal challenge.

Oconee County Republicans have said they object to Gonzalez’ approach to the work of the District Attorney, but they could have had a continuation of Mauldin’s work with Patterson.

Instead, they backed Chafin, who was not running with a Democratic label.

If Gonzalez and Patterson had made it to the runoff, Democrats would have been picking between two Democrats, and, with Republican support, Patterson likely would have won.

In the actual race between Gonzalez and Chafin, Democrats were picking between a Democrat and someone who was not running as a Democrat.

Gonzalez won with 51.7 percent of the vote.

Clarke Voters Likely In Dark

Any changes to the boundaries of the Western Judicial Circuit would have tremendous impact in Clarke County, but it is unlikely that many voters in Clarke County even know that Wiedower and Gaines requested the boundary study.

Wiedower and Gaines did not make a public pronouncement when they sent the letter to the Judicial Council asking for the boundary study, though they had informed some people that they had done so.

I learned that the study had been requested only on July 8 when Oconee County Commission Chair John Daniell explained to me the procedures required before the boundaries of the Circuit could be changed.

Daniell had made preliminary estimates of the costs that the county would have to assume were it to be a stand-alone circuit. The costs would have been greater, he said.

The Athens Banner-Herald did write not about the Wiedower and Gaines letter or about action of the Workload Assessment Committee meeting on July 16.

A short version of my post about that meeting did appear on the alternative weekly flagpole shortly after the meeting.

As of this post, no media organization has reported on the decision of the Judicial Council on Friday regarding the Western Judicial Circuit boundaries.


The meeting of the Judicial Council was scheduled to be live in Columbus but was switched to virtual because of the increase in COVID-19 cases in the state.

The meeting was live streamed via Zoom and also on YouTube.

I watched the meeting while it was being live streamed.

The video embedded below is on YouTube.

The discussion of the recommendation of the Workload Assessment Committee begins at 57:55 in the video.

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