Columbus officials say they are weighing options on what to do with a municipal judge seat vacated by Nicole Clinkscales, who stepped down in June to campaign as a write-in Democratic candidate in the race for District 41 state representative.
Clinkscales began her campaign following the death of incumbent Esther Harrison. She vacated her seat on the bench, as judicial regulations forbid sitting judges from running for office.
The city council voted to make Clinkscales a municipal judge five years ago. Now, the council has to choose who, if anyone, will fill her seat.
But nearly a month into the vacancy, little progress has been made in finding a replacement.
“There hasn’t been any conversation as far as a replacement as of this time,” Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor told The Dispatch. “I think we are still…analyzing the situation and hopefully we will come up with a solution here soon.”
Columbus Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong confirmed to The Dispatch that the city has used Lowndes County justice court judges to help manage the workload from cases that would have gone to Clinkscales.
The city is paying justice court judge Chris Hemphill $100 per hour to fill in for municipal court, according to Armstrong.
Ward 5 Council Kabir Karriem said he hopes the council moves quickly to appoint a judge, rather than continue paying outside judges to help Marc Amos — the only municipal judge currently working for the city — carry the load.
“I really feel that that’s unfair to Judge Amos,” Karriem said. “I don’t feel that it’s fair to pay judges $100 an hour when we have a capable judge in the municipal (court). Municipal court judges get health insurance, but they’re only getting $23,000 a year. That’s a slap in the face to a municipal judge, to go out and get an outside judge and pay them $100 an hour.”
Clinkscales is running against Karriem in the Democratic primary for the District 41 seat.
Taylor said the process is still “up in the wind” for the time being. He does not believe the council should rush to a decision, and should instead take time to consider viable replacements for Clinkscales.
“I think it’s been a little too soon to even consider making a hard decision,” Taylor said. “We have to make sure we have the right person for the decision. That’s my take on it — I believe we should research and find the best-qualified person for that job.”
Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box said he thinks Amos can handle the load for the time being. However, he noted that he’d like to see the city move forward with a decision on Clinkscales’ seat soon.
“I hope we will move on forward with it pretty quick, because it’s an important position,” he said.
Box said one option for the city could be to reduce municipal court to one seat as it used to be under the late Curtis Austin, a former municipal judge. Austin died in 2010.
“I don’t know if anybody’s discussed that, but that would be an idea that could happen,” Box said. “Judge Curtis Austin was the only judge and he did that for a good while. We’re not in a bind. Judge Amos has done a good job keeping up with stuff.”
Ward 4 Councilman Marty Turner said he had a few candidates in mind for a replacement. He went on to say he’d be fine with whatever the council decides to do, whether appointing a new judge or consolidating the court to one judge.
“The one seat is the way we used to do it,” Turner said. “If the workload is O.K. with one judge, that would be fine with me. But, if we decide to have two judges, I have a couple of people in mind. The only reason I thought we had two judges was to handle the workload. If Judge Amos is able to handle that workload, I’d be fine with it.”
Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens declined to comment Tuesday.
Columbus Mayor Robert Smith did not answer calls for comment.
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