After a long and rocky road, a legislative initiative to add a fourth Superior Court judge to the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit squeaked through on the final day of the 2020 legislative session.
The circuit, which encompasses Bulloch, Effingham, Jenkins, and Screven counties, is currently split by service of Superior Court Judges Gates Peed, Lovett Bennett, and Michael Muldrew. Last summer, Superior Court Judge Gates Peed approached county commissioners around the circuit about expressing their support for an additional judge, citing growing populations in both Bulloch and Effingham counties and heavier case loads with more egregious offenses. Peed told the Screven County commissioners that the number of murder cases has increased substantially.
In reaction, House lawmakers filed House Bill 1003, sponsored by State Representatives Jon Burns, Butch Parris, Bill Hitchens, and Jan Tankersley, all of whom represent the four counties in the state house. The bill was approved unanimously by the Georgia House back in early March, but the measure was not taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee until after returning from the COVID-19 pandemic suspension. There, Senate lawmakers gutted the language adding a fourth judge and replaced it with a token for the Statewide Business Court created by lawmakers in 2019. While the committee and the Senate body approved the revised bill, it was not sent back to the House for approval.
It was not until the final day of the legislative session that lawmakers came to a consensus and added the additional judgeship to another bill – House Bill 786 – which included additional judges for the Cobb Circuit and the Flint Circuit.
The costs and any supplements provided to superior court judges are shared across counties based on population. The state sets the salary for Superior Court judges at $132,264 annually and the counties add a $41,490 supplement for each judge for a total salary of $173,754.
Governor Kemp will appoint the first judge, who would serve a term through December 2022 and would then be up for re-election for a four year term. It is on his desk awaiting signature.
The Senate Judiciary Committee that gutted the bill is made up of Senators Jesse Stone (Chairman) and Senators Bill Cowesert, Blake Tillery, Bill Heath, Harold Jones II, John F. Kennedy, William Ligon, Elena Parent, Michael ‘Doc’ Rhett, and Brian Strickland.