Re-elected Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle and newly elected Chief Magistrate Wade Padgett were sworn into office Thursday, a few days before their terms of office actually begin.
Columbia County Chief Magistrate Wade Padgett (left) poses with his family after being sworn in Thursday in a courtroom at the Columbia County Justice Center. With him are daughter Jordan (from left), wife Alice and son Matt.
Photo by Barry Paschal
As Padgett explained to the crowd of friends and well-wishers gathered in a Columbia County Justice Center courtroom, the early oaths were necessary to keep law and order in the county.
Most constitutional officers won't be sworn in until a Tuesday ceremony at the Columbia County Government Complex Auditorium in Evans. But because the terms of Whittle and outgoing chief magistrate David Huguenin end Friday at midnight, "we were sworn in early to avoid the lag time," Padgett said.
Also sworn in Thursday were magistrates Sandra Washington, Jack Farmer, Dale Jenereaux and Chris Leopard, all of whom serve under Huguenin. Washington also is clerk of the magistrate's office.
Added to the roster and sworn in along with the veterans was Bobby Christine, whom Padgett named as his associate magistrate.
The ceremony took place on Christine's last day as an assistant district attorney, where he prosecuted Columbia County cases for the Augusta Judicial Circuit. Christine is entering private law practice, leasing office space from Huguenin and assisting Padgett in the part-time magistrate's post.
Padgett said he plans to make a couple of immediate changes in operation of the magistrates court, both of them in cooperation with the sheriff's office.
In the past, the calendar call for misdemeanor cases handled by magistrate's court has meant not only a room full of defendants waiting on their case, but often dozens of deputies waiting to see whether their testimony is needed.
"Nine times out of 10, we were paying officers overtime for them just to sit there," Padgett said. The deputies often are dismissed without being needed when the defendant pleads guilty.
Under the new policy, however, officers won't be called to court unless the defendant requests a trial. "That will be an immediate, dramatic savings for the county," he added.
Security is behind another change to cut down on the number of times inmates are transferred in and out of the Columbia County Detention Center in Appling.
"Right now, we are putting inmates in the car, bringing them to the courthouse with all that risk, reading the charges to them, putting them back in the car and sending them back to the jail" for first-appearance hearings, Padgett said. "We're doing that four times a week - that's insanity."
Magistrates will now travel to the jail for those brief hearings. But Padgett said the next step will involve virtual court appearances: The defendants will be linked to court via Web cam, and hearings will be held over a computer at the jail.
"We're just going to try to save some of the money for the sheriff's office, and the attendant risk that goes with it," Padgett said.
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