Columbus will split its vacant city judge position in two in the interest of saving money.
During the Columbus City Council”s Oct. 19 meeting, Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem moved the late Judge Curtis Austin”s vacant seat be divided from one full-time position into two part-time positions.
The motion passed 4-2.
The intention is to split the $45,000 Austin was making among two judges but offer benefits to neither, saving the money which would have gone toward health insurance and retirement benefits.
However, Karriem says saving money wasn”t his primary concern in splitting the job in two.
“It helps with efficiency and the case load. It gives the Municipal Court time to really hear the felony cases and see if there”s enough evidence to (send the case) to circuit court,” said Karriem.
The city judge currently hears misdemeanors, drug cases and felony arraignments in six separate sessions each month.
Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin, who voted in favor of dividing the city judge job, says one judge may cover misdemeanors and arraignments while the other deals exclusively in drug cases. Neither judge is expected to work more than 30 hours per week.
City Attorney Jeff Turnage said dividing the job could also benefit law enforcement by increasing access to a judge.
“When a police officer needs a warrant, they can”t get it until they present it to a judge. The city judge has always been a lawyer with a practice, and an officer may need a warrant when the judge is in court or out of town,” he said.
Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor and Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens both opposed Karriem”s motion, but for different reasons.
“The position was filled with one judge for a certain period of time. I didn”t see the need to split it among two public officials,” said Taylor.
Columbus last employed two city judges during Austin”s tenure when he served as Judge Pro Tempore, presiding over felony court. Senior Judge Tommy Wallace handled misdemeanor cases.
Austin took over both courts around the turn of the millennium when Wallace became city attorney. During that time he initiated the drug court.
Mickens says he wasn”t comfortable with the motion because the vote was taken in open session just moments after the idea was introduced.
“I wasn”t quite clear on why we”re moving so fast to bring in two judges to cover one position,” he said. “I know what”s going to happen down the road. We”re going to end up paying more than the $45,000 we were paying Judge Austin.”
Mickens also questioned the motives for creating a new position, asserting “Politics is involved.”
“Everybody has an agenda. If we”re going to create a position, it has to be political.”
The council plans to advertise the positions and accept applications for 30 days. At the end of that period, interviews will likely be held in open session at a future city council meeting.
Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong said the advertisement will be printed soon after job descriptions are written. The city hopes to have the positions staffed by the end of the year. Currently, a combination of three Justice Court and Municipal Court judges from Lowndes and other counties are filling the city judge position.
Armstrong said the description has not been written yet because the city was waiting for an opinion from the state attorney general regarding eligibility for city judge.
A question existed as to whether applicants must be county electors as stated in state code or city electors as spelled out in Columbus” city charter.
The attorney general”s office responded that, in this case, city charters trump state code.
City officials believe the law is clear enough to prevent legal challenges, but Columbus Attorney and Brooksville City Prosecutor Monique Montgomery may be a special case.
Montgomery, who has expressed interest in filling one of the city judge spots, lives in a special district beyond the city limits which votes in city elections and falls within the Columbus Municipal School District.
“I think the statute says (an applicant) must be an elector in the city, and I”m an elector,” she said Monday.
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.