Banks County seeking to join Mountain Judicial Circuit

Banks County is wanting to leave the Piedmont Judicial Circuit and join up with the Mountain Judicial Circuit, which includes Habersham, Rabun and Stephens counties. Whether that can occur has to be determined by the Georgia General Assembly.
The Habersham County Commission took up a request from Banks County to approve the change at a called Oct. 2 meeting.
The Piedmont Circuit currently includes Banks, Jackson and Barrow counties.
Banks County will be putting forward a request for local legislation in the General Assembly to make the change.
28th District Rep. Dan Gasaway said Oct. 12 he has “been hearing talk for about six months” about a possible request for a change. He said he was not aware the Habersham County Commission had received an endorsement request from Banks County.
Still, if a change is acted on, “we will do it slowly,” Gasaway said. “I want to talk to all the stakeholders. It will not happen this year.”
Gasaway said Barrow and Jackson counties are changing rapidly, “becoming more like suburbs of Atlanta,” while Banks is not changing.
Banks County has a population of fewer than 18,000 people while Jackson County has approximately 60,000 residents and Barrow County has almost 100,000 people.
Gasaway said he has spoken with both House Speaker David Ralston and Gov. Nathan Deal about the matter. He also said he does not anticipate a change would impact other judicial circuits.
Victor Anderson, commission chairman, said the county has received a request from Banks County to endorse the circuit change. He noted the request is a formality, because the Georgia General Assembly would have to legislate the change. Endorsement by all local officials involved is generally expected before a local representative would take up such a matter.
Anderson told the commissioners Mountain Judicial Circuit officials, including judges, district attorney and public defenders have generally agreed to the change, but will not officially endorse it, preferring to maintain a neutral stance.
Habersham County Manager Phil Sutton told the commission he has run the numbers and Habersham County will likely see approximately $5,000-$8,000 in increased expenses.
While Mountain Judicial Circuit expenses are shared by Habersham, Rabun and Stephens counties on a per capita basis, Habersham handles the bookkeeping for the circuit.
But while the economic impact can generally be determined, little information was available to the commission regarding the impact on judicial matters, such as whether there will be a significant increase in caseload.
The endorsement letter Banks County wanted the county commission to sign included the statement, “We see the financial and judicial benefits of Banks County joining the circuit…”.
Both commissioners Andrea Harper and Natalie Crawford expressed their hesitation to proceed, with Harper seeking more information on the impact on caseload volume and other judicial matters, while Crawford sought more dialog with local judges and other judicial officials.
Harper noted Banks County’s proximity to Interstate 85 meant a lot of drug cases being handled could ramp up costs for the circuit.
While financial benefits are hazy, Anderson said judicial benefits could include having a third judge available to handle the current caseload, which now also includes Drug Court, a diversionary court to keep people with drug problems out of prison and instead turn themselves around.
“We have no basis to evaluate caseload information,” Anderson said. He emphasized the county’s endorsement did not finalize anything, because “…the state legislature makes it happen.”
Responding to a question from commissioner Ed Nichols whether the top floor of the courthouse would need to be built out and expanded into, Sutton explained Banks County courtroom space would be available.
The commission tabled a decision on the endorsement until its Oct. 18 regular monthly meeting.
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