Legislation to combine courts being drafted

Grady County commissioners have taken action that could result in the consolidation of two local courts if the local legislation is passed by the Georgia General Assembly.
Tuesday morning commissioners voted 4-1, with Vice Chairman Elwyn Childs opposing, to instruct Grady County Attorney Kevin S. Cauley to prepare a draft of local legislation to be introduced in the next session of the Georgia General Assembly which would consolidate the Probate Court and Magistrate Court.
Commissioners have previously discussed the idea of court consolidation and had also mentioned a desire to wrap Grady County State Court into the court consolidation.
“We’ve discussed legislation on consolidating the probate and magistrate courts, so are we going to do it or not? There would be cost savings if we do, so do you want to look into it or not?” Commission Chairman Charles Norton asked.
“I think it is certainly something we should consider,” Commissioner T.D. David responded.
According to figures provided by Chairman Norton, the county currently budgets $81,174.40 to cover the $63,232 salary of the magistrate in addition to $4,742.40 in payroll taxes and $13,200 for insurance. In the probate court, the county budget $62,489 for salary, $4,686.68 for FICA and $13,200 for insurance. For each clerk eliminated, there are currently four full-time clerks between the two offices, a total of $34,583.60 would be saved.
Chairman Norton asked if the possibility of consolidating all three of the inferior courts was a possibility, but Cauley indicated State Court would remain independent based on his research into the matter.
“The only State Court that I could find that shares responsibility with Magistrate Court is in Dougherty County where the State Court judge appoints the magistrates, but they are still two separate courts,” the county attorney said.
Vice Chairman Childs asked how the salary would be set for a consolidated court and Cauley said that the salaries are set statutorily, but he noted that whoever is elected to serve as probate judge over a consolidated court would be eligible for an additional supplement.
Commissioner Al Ball asked if this was a measure that could be completed prior to qualifying for elections next year since both judgeships would be up for election.
Attorney Cauley indicated it could be done, but that work would need to begin shortly in order to present it to the county’s legislative delegation for introduction early in the legislative session which kicks off in early January.
“If you consolidate the positions, would you have to be a lawyer to qualify?” Childs asked.
The county attorney explained that the board of commissioners can include any requirements they wish in the local legislation, but that it would not be necessary for the board to limit qualified candidates to members of the bar.
“You could let the voters decide if they would rather vote for a lawyer or not,” Cauley said.
Childs voiced his concern with making membership to the bar a qualification. “You could be keeping people who would be good at the job from running.”
Ball asked if a preference for bar membership could be included in the wording of the legislation, but Cauley said there is no room for discretion in the law.
Without the requirement for bar membership, Cauley pointed out that a member of the bar could qualify and run and it would be up to the voters whether or not they chose to elect a lawyer or another candidate who is not a member of the bar.
Chairman Norton believes that an attorney would not be interested in the position unless the salary was increased over the statutory minimums. County Administrator Rusty Moye pointed out the county could decide to pay an additional local supplement if they so chose.
Commissioner Ball said that court consolidation is a necessary first step to creating a board of election, a concept he favors, so he offered a motion authorizing the county attorney to prepare local legislation for the board to act on at the next meeting.
Commissioner David seconded the motion, but asked if the county administrator had any comments concerning court consolidation and Moye declined.
Chairman Norton called for the vote and Vice Chairman Childs voted against saying, “I’m just not comfortable with it at this time so I’m going to vote against.”
Cauley will submit the draft of the local legislation for the board’s approval in two weeks.

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