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Updated: 8:07 p.m. Thursday, March 22, 2012 | Posted: 8:02 p.m. Thursday, March 22, 2012

Five federal courthouses in Georgia could close

By Rhonda Cook

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The federal government is considering closing five federal courthouses in Georgia -- one in Athens and the others south of Macon -- along with dozens more nationwide to cut costs, according to a list released Thursday.

As many as 60 courthouses -- almost 10 percent -- may be expendable, according to a national ranking based on cost, usage and location. The courthouse in Dublin was ranked ninth and is among those most likely to be close if the preliminary list developed by a committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making body for the federal courts, is adopted.

Many of the courthouses on the list are in rural areas. None have a judge assigned to work in those buildings on a daily basis.

Defense attorney Page Pate, who has tried cases in each of the Georgia courthouses on the list -- Athens, Dublin, Statesboro, Valdosta and Waycross -- said defendants, defense attorneys and people filing lawsuits or bankruptcies would have to travel farther if the buildings are closed.

Pate questioned how much money could be saved because the staffs working those courthouses daily would have to be shifted to other courthouses because "the volume is not going to go down.”

The Judicial Conference committee has asked the 13 judicial circuits -- Georgia is in the 11th circuit -- to review the list and respond  by mid-April on the recommendations.

According to the list obtained by the Associated Press, six of the courthouses are in Arkansas and two of those are ranked in the top 10 most expendable. In addition to Georgia, there are five courthouses also listed Texas. Far behind Dublin in ninth place are Athens (No. 28), Waycross  (No. 29), Valdosta (No. 41) and Statesboro (No. 56).

Beaufort, S.C., was ranked the most expendable federal courthouse in the country.  There are 674 federal courthouses nationwide.

"The federal judiciary is going through an aggressive cost containment effort because the money Congress has provided for the operating expenses for the courts has been essentially frozen the last three years," David Sellers, a spokesman for the federal courts, told the AP.

The list is far from final, he said.

"It would depend on what, if any, facilities are closed, when the closure would occur, the rent on the particular facility, staff located at the facility, other needs in the circuit, as well as many other factors that vary from facility to facility," Sellers said.

Cases destined for any of the closed courthouses would be shifted to courtrooms within the same district, regardless of the distance. Georgia’s Middle District cuts through Georgia, including Athens, Macon and Valdosta near the Florida line, as well as Albany and Columbus in Georgia’s southwest corner. The Southern District stretches from Augusta down the coast and over to Dublin and Waycross. The Northern District includes Gainesville, Rome, Atlanta and Newnan.

“Athens is in the middle district and they will have to go to Macon,” Pate said. “That, to me, makes the least sense out of all these. It’s [the Athens court] not a busy division but it’s a growing division and the cases that are brought there are local cases. These are folks who have been arrested and charged in and around Athens.

"They will have to go all the way to Macon and there’s no easy way to get to Macon from Athens. I think that’s probably a bad decision.”

Gainesville, in the Northern District, is less than an hour’s drive from Athens. The trip from Athens to Macon or Valdosta to Macon, on the other hand, takes almost 2 ½ hours.

Cases otherwise handled in Dublin by District Judge Dudley Bowen, who is based in Augusta and assigned to the Southern District, would most likely be taken to the courthouse in Augusta about 100 miles away.

In the Southern District, the closest courthouse to Statesboro and Waycross is in Savannah.

“Statesboro is probably the best of the bunch [because] it’s close to Savannah," Pate said.

The drive from Statesboro to Savannah takes about an hour on I-16.

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