The new chief judge for the Augusta Judicial Circuit said he never envisioned himself in the role.
“Oh no, I never saw myself as a judge at all,” Judge Danny Craig said. “It’s been an evolution through my career.”
Craig was in private practice when he decided to run for district attorney and was elected in 1993. He was appointed judge in 2008, replacing Judge Neal Dickert, who was returning to private practice.
“I’ve enjoyed my career, every facet of it,” Craig said. “Sometimes you have to pinch yourself and ask yourself why the Lord would have seen fit to put you in these various assignments.”
Craig is settling in as chief judge of a smaller AJC in the wake of the Columbia County Judicial Circuit being formed.
“I see a largely urban circuit that extends all the way into Burke County and a lot of that is farmland,” he said. “No one would argue the fact that Augusta is the economic hub of eastern Georgia. It’s a pleasure to have the variety of work that comes with a diverse circuit.”
Craig was openly opposed to splitting Columbia County out of the circuit, which had existed for more than 150 years.
“We had the most efficient case movement in the state. We had a circuit that was unsurpassed in its ability to move cases,” he said.
He questioned the necessity of the split and the associated costs.
“We’re spending a lot of money. A lot more money than we were spending prior to the circuit split,” Craig said “When you calculate in the additional cost to all three counties and to the state of Georgia, the additional cost comes to well over $6 million a year.”
Craig also questioned the method used to split the circuit.
“You should have complete and total disclosure to the people so that the people can voice their interest and their concerns whether that’s for or against whatever the government proposes to do,” he said. “And there was no transparency here. In fact, there was a ton of misrepresentation, not the least of which there was going to be a cost savings in doing this.”
Columbia County Manager Scott Johnson said, “We had proposed there was going to be a savings between $300,000 and a million dollars initially and when we passed our budget. We saved $565,000.”
Each county in a judicial circuit helps fund the operations; including the judges, the district attorney office, public defenders and support staff. Columbia County officials said being an independent circuit allows for more direct control over operational finances.
Ultimately, the Georgia Supreme Court still may have the final say.
The court is reviewing an April 2021 lawsuit filed by attorney Willie Saunders that challenging the judicial split.
Among the items listed in that suit, Saunders said last year’s election of Jared Williams, an African American attorney, to replace Natalie Paine as the circuit’s district attorney was the motivation for Senate Bill 9.
The suit also charged the split would create a majority white judicial circuit, which disenfranchises African American voters. The lawsuit says that violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
If the Supreme Court rules Columbia County should return to the AJC Craig says re-integration would not be difficult.
“Reassembly of the circuit, which was the recommendation of the Judicial Workload Assessment Committee, they had begun their work back in March,” Craig explained. “Their recommendation is the most efficient use of resources for the administration of justice in Columbia, Richmond and Burke Counties is for those three counties to be assigned to the same circuit.”
Craig’s counterpart, Chief Judge James Blanchard in CJC, said that decision is out of his hands.
“It’s in a higher power than me. The Lord has control of the whole thing. I don’t want to throw religion on you, but I do feel that way. He is in charge, and we will see where it comes out,” Blanchard said.
The case is tentatively scheduled for a hearing in November; however, the court allowed the split to move forward in the meantime.