A Black prosecutor was elected in Georgia – so white Republicans made their own district
Since 1870, the Augusta judicial circuit has been home to the criminal justice system of a three-county area on Georgia’s border with South Carolina. In that time, no African American has been elected district attorney of the circuit – until 2020, when a Black lawyer named Jared Williams upset a conservative, pro-police candidate with just more than 50% of the vote.
But that historic win was short-lived. The day after his election, a lawyer and state lawmaker in the area proposed something unusual: that the circuit’s whitest county separate itself from the Augusta circuit, creating a new judicial circuit in Georgia for the first time in nearly 40 years.
“Does the board of commissioners want to be there [sic] own judicial circuit,” Barry Fleming, a Republican state legislator from nearby Harlem, asked the Columbia county commission chair, Doug Duncan, in a text message.
Duncan supported the plan, and in December 2020 issued a resolution asking the area’s lawmakers, including Fleming, to introduce legislation that would separate Columbia county from the judicial circuit it had been a part of for 150 years. Fleming’s bill passed with bipartisan support.
The split caused the disenfranchisement of the old circuit’s Black voters, voting advocacy organization Black Voters Matter Fund contended in a lawsuit that was eventually dismissed by the state supreme court. Those voters had chosen Williams, who ran on a pledge to uphold criminal justice reforms like not prosecuting low-level marijuana possession, a crime which disproportionately affects Black and minority communities.
Instead of Williams, Black voters in Columbia county got as their prosecutor Bobby Christine, a Trump-appointed US attorney who was appointed by the Republican governor, Brian Kemp. Christine then chose Williams’ opponent as his chief deputy.
Voting advocates say the circuit split is an example of the type of minority rule that Republicans are accused of engaging in across the US.
“There was a time when as we started to win these elections, white people would leave,” said Cliff Albright, executive director of Black Voters Matter Fund. “But now they’ve figured out, we don’t actually have to leave, we can just change the jurisdiction. It is a way, even when the political minority is losing, to hold on to the mechanism of coercion through the courts and law enforcement.”
Despite voting advocates’ opposition, the circuit split had bipartisan support and was welcomed by some Black Democrats in the legislature, who argued that a backlog of felony cases in Richmond county could be reduced if the circuit were smaller and didn’t include Columbia county.
Fleming and Duncan did not respond to requests for comment. In response to a public records request, Duncan’s office said it had no communications with Fleming related to the Augusta split.
The splitting of the Augusta judicial circuit and the resulting creation of the new Columbia judicial circuit is not the only split to have been proposed in recent years. Nor is it the only split to have involved Fleming, a hardline conservative lawyer who was the architect of Georgia’s 2021 sweeping voter suppression law.
Following the Augusta split, two Republican lawmakers in Georgia proposed a circuit split in Oconee county after the election of a progressive prosecutor who ran on a platform of addressing systemic racism. Since then, Republican legislators statewide created a prosecutor oversight commission that holds the power to remove prosecutors for misconduct. The commission has been heavily criticized by Democratic prosecutors like Fani Willis, who is investigating the Trump campaign’s meddling in the 2020 election in Georgia. Willis and others told lawmakers the commission was created so white Republicans could target minority prosecutors.
The splits come at a time when criticism of prosecutors like Williams – who refuse to toe the line of tough-on-crime conservative policies – abounds on the right. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has made punishment of so-called progressive prosecutors part of his presidential campaign, firing a prosecutor who signed a pledge criticizing the criminalization of transgender people. In Mississippi, white Republican leaders have created a judicial district with hand-picked judges and law enforcement to oversee a majority-Black city.
The Florida prosecutor who was removed by DeSantis has sued the governor, saying that by “challenging this illegal abuse of power, we make sure that no governor can toss out the results of an election because he doesn’t like the outcome”.
Tossing out the outcome of an election is exactly what happened in Georgia when Republicans pushed for the creation of the new Columbia judicial circuit, Williams and others said.
Before Fleming spearheaded the Augusta split, others had proposed breaking up the circuit. In 2018, state senator Harold Jones, who is Black, requested that the judicial council of Georgia conduct a workload study for courts in the three counties that comprise the old circuit – Columbia, Richmond and Burke. The study found that workloads were high for local judges, especially in the majority-Black county of Richmond, Jones said, so he argued that the 200,000 people there should have their own circuit. But he couldn’t make any headway.
“As a Democrat, to do something that monumental, it’s next to impossible,” Jones said.
It wasn’t until December 2020 that the study was used as rationale for a circuit split. Then, the Columbia county board of commissioners issued a resolution requesting that its local legislative delegation – which includes Fleming – introduce a law that would formalize the split. The resolution cited Jones’ 2018 study, but that was only part of the story.
Behind the scenes, Columbia county leaders were coordinating to separate the county in response to Williams’ historic election win. Among those working to institute the split was Fleming himself.
Fleming, an attorney who works on behalf of nearly 40 state and county governments throughout Georgia, is a full-throated Trump supporter. He has been heavily involved in election matters through his former role as chair of the Special Committee on Election Integrity. Fleming and Duncan were vocal opponents of Williams and supported his opponent, Natalie Paine.
Held in the midst of widespread protests against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd, the 2020 race between Williams and Paine, who was appointed by Kemp in 2017 and ran unopposed in 2018, reflected national themes of conflict between so-called law-and-order conservatives and progressive reformers. Williams prevailed despite attacks calling him “soft on crime.”
His win set in motion the series of events to split Columbia County. After Fleming’s House bill, Sen. Lee Anderson, who has ties to Fleming through their failed effort to annex land in Fleming’s hometown away from Columbia county, introduced a Senate bill officially calling for the creation of the Columbia Judicial Circuit.
Co-sponsoring the bill were a handful of conservative and well-connected legislators including Jeff Mullis, a confederate monument defender; Butch Miller, a far-right election-denier; and state senator Bill Cowsert, who is Kemp’s brother-in-law. The bill eventually passed the Senate unanimously, with many Democrats including Jones voting in favor due to their desire for a smaller circuit that could better serve Richmond’s high Black population, Jones said.
Seven of the eight judges in the old Augusta circuit objected to the split, saying it would not address workload issues.
The Augusta split provided a roadmap for Republicans throughout Georgia to fight back against progressive prosecutors. In 2020, Deborah Gonzalez became the state’s first Latina district attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit, winning on a platform of ending prosecution of low-level marijuana possession. Two Republican state lawmakers quickly asked the Judicial Council of Georgia to perform a study that would justify the separation of Oconee County from the Western circuit. Oconee is 87 percent white while the other county in the circuit, Athens-Clark, has a much higher Black population of 27 percent.
One of the lawmakers, state representative Houston Gaines, was clear about the rationale behind the proposed split.
“Our district attorney is choosing which laws to prosecute and which laws not to, and that is not the role of the district attorney,” Gaines told the local press.
Then on 12 April, Meriwether county commissioners issued a resolution asking for itself and two other counties – Troup and Coweta – to have their own circuit, citing increasing populations and felony caseloads.
The public reason for the proposed split, according to Coweta circuit district attorney Herb Cranford, is the circuit’s per-judge caseload. But recommendations for splits traditionally come from the judicial council of Georgia, and Cranford has said that a council study isn’t necessary.
Carroll county sheriff Terry Langley – whose law enforcement agency oversees one of the five counties in Coweta’s judicial circuit – spoke in support of the split, saying the growing population of the area made it necessary.
Much of that population growth has come in the form of people moving from the Atlanta metro area, Langley noted in a recent interview. The Atlanta area is far more Black than Carroll county.
“I’m not big into growth … I like some of our small-town stuff that we have, much of it’s gone,” Langley said. “It’s managed growth. We’re gonna grow, but you gotta manage it to a way that you don’t lose the quality of life that we have.”
Officials in Coweta, Heard, Meriwether and Troup counties did not respond to requests for comment.
Fleming is also co-sponsor of a bill proposing to split Banks county from the Piedmont judicial circuit. All of the circuit’s judges, its public defender and its district attorney have spoken in opposition to the split.
The Piedmont circuit does not have an abnormally high caseload for judges, according to the two most recent judicial council of Georgia workload assessments, although the circuit has seen a steady increase in population in recent years.
The real reason for the desired split likely comes down to a disagreement over prosecutorial ideology. During testimony before lawmakers, Judge Joseph Booth said that the bill was a result of disagreements between Sheriff Carlton Speed, whose office has been accused of racially discriminating against a defendant in a prominent case involving a Black former Atlanta Hawks basketball player, and district attorney Brad Smith.
Another judge in the circuit, Currie Mingeldorff, also noted that the split was proposed after he engaged in a failed effort to institute a drug court in Banks county. Drug or specialty courts have been around for decades to prevent mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders. But Speed opposed the program.
“I never considered it to be tough on crime or not tough on crime, I considered it to be a way to keep the community safe, rehabilitate a person and reduce recidivism,” Mingeldorfff said.
The bill stalled in Georgia’s house of representatives but was replaced by a Senate bill that remains pending. Erwin, Speed, Smith, and Booth did not respond to requests for comment.
James Woodall, a public policy associate with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which advocates on behalf of indigent defense, said circuit splitting allows lawmakers to hand pick conservative prosecutors in a swing state.
“They’re trying to find ways to maintain power,” Woodall said. “And who’s going to choose those people? Not the voters.”