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Perdue signs off on fifth judgeship

COVINGTON - A fifth judgeship for the Alcovy Judicial Circuit, along with assistant district attorney and public defender positions, has officially been included in the state's 2010 fiscal year budget, approved by Gov. Sonny Perdue on Wednesday.

A total of $236,905 has been appropriated for the judgeship, which includes the judge's salary and benefits, a secretary's salary and benefits, and setup costs to cover office furniture and equipment.

The new judge will work out of both Newton and Walton counties but will be based in Newton,Superior Court Judge Samuel D. Ozburn said.

The position was approved by the General Assembly last year, but funding was delayed until the upcoming fiscal year.

"The county knew this was coming and showed great foresight in setting the funds aside to go ahead and construct and furnish the office here at the Judicial Center," Ozburn said.

The Judicial Nominating Commission will soon begin soliciting and accepting nominations for the new judgeship. Nominees must meet certain criteria, such as residing in the circuit and practicing law for seven years.

The commission will perform background checks on all nominees and will conduct interviews, then submit a short list to Perdue, who will make an appointment.

The new judge will serve beginning July 1 through 2010, and would have to run for election for a four-year term to begin in 2011.

"We just have such a tremendous caseload as far as the number of cases per judge, civil and criminal. It's really mind boggling sometimes. When I talk to judges around the state, the caseload is so much higher than about anyone's in the state, but through case management and hard work, we're trying to keep our heads above water," Ozburn said.

In addition to Ozburn, the Alcovy Circuit is currently served by Chief Superior Court Judge John Ott and Judges Horace Johnson and Eugene Benton.

Ozburn has been nominated to serve on the Georgia Supreme Court. If he's selected, the Alcovy Circuit will be getting two new judges.

"The same process would happen, but we would just have to cross that bridge if and when we get there," he said.

Ozburn said he expects between 50 and 70 nominations to be submitted to the Nominating Commission to replace Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears.

Though Sears has announced her retirement will take effect June 30, she has yet to send a formal resignation to Perdue.

"Technically there's no vacancy to act on," Ozburn said, adding there may not be time to fill the position by June 30.

By law, an assistant district attorney and assistant public defender position must be created for each judgeship.

A total of $223,156 has been allocated for three assistant district attorney positions throughout the state, including a small amount of travel money, to be divided between judicial circuits, including Alcovy.

Currently, there are four state-paid attorney positions and eight county-paid attorney positions in the public defender's office.

The salary range for the new assistant public defender position is between $42,000 and $51,000 per year plus benefits.

"I have not made a final decision on the physical location for the new attorney position. Since we will only receive one additional attorney position to cover the fifth judge's caseload in both counties, either the new attorney would be required to travel back and forth to cover cases in both counties or I will have to implement organizational changes within the two offices in order to ensure that the caseload for the fifth judge is properly managed," said Public Defender Anthony Carter.

The new position will be posted on the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council Web site and advertised elsewhere, Carter said, adding he hopes to fill the position when funding is available on July 1.

Editor Alice Queen contributed to this story.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.