This past March, the public was made aware that the federal government is considering closing dozens of courtrooms, many of which are located in small, rural communities, as part of an effort to cut costs. The federal courthouse in Statesboro was on the list of 60 potential closures, ranking on the lower end at 56, as well as the courthouse in Dublin which was ranked 9th.
Local lawyers and federal judges serving this area are upset about the effect the closures will have on those being served by these courts, in addition to the economic impact within the communities where they are housed.
Savannah-based Federal Judge B. Avant Edenfield of the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Georgia wrote a letter to Judicial Conference of the United States in support of the Statesboro federal courthouse remaining open. In his letter, Edenfield cited that more than 60,000 people had used the Statesboro facility from 2008 - 2010.
"The Statesboro courthouse facility is an integral part of the district court, the bankruptcy court, the magistrate court, the United States Clerk's office, the Probation office, the U.S. Trustee's Office and the United States Attorney's Office," Edenfield said. "In addition, of all the Federal courthouses within the Southern District of Georgia, Statesboro alone provides the most security for the Marshal's Service and the court."
Local attorney Dan Snipes is a member of the Court Advisory Committee of the Southern District of Georgia. He said the closing of the courthouse would place a tremendous burden on the local business community.
"The Statesboro federal courthouse is comprised of a bankruptcy court, a civil court, and a criminal court," Snipes said. "If someone from Bulloch, or its surrounding counties files bankruptcy, they do it here in Statesboro. This allows their creditors to come to court here which limits the time that a creditor is away from their business. If they close this courthouse, and the one in Dublin, it would mean that people in that situation would have to drive to Savannah or Augusta for bankruptcy proceedings."
Snipes also pointed out how much more difficult it would be to serve on a federal jury.
"Even if they close the courthouse, citizens in this area will still be subject to sitting on federal juries and grand juries," he said. "It doesn't matter if you have to drive an hour or more, you will still be expected to sit on that jury. That can be a hardship for many."
Edenfield said that the closure of the courthouse could also have a more subtle effect on economic development that many have not considered.
"Major corporations that have plants, facilities, and offices around the country like to locate where there is easy access to a federal court," he said. "They prefer to litigate in federal court as opposed to state court. That can be very important to corporations, and can definitely be a factor in decision making."
Bulloch County manager Tom Couch said the court runs its business in such a fashion as to not be a detriment to downtown, but rather, an asset.
"Given the amount of business that is transacted in that courthouse, it is amazing how quiet it actually is," Couch said. "They go about their business in a professional way, and really make very good neighbors. You can tell when court is in session, because there are many more cars on court days than others, but that is really about it. We are very glad to have them downtown, and it would be a significant loss if the facility were closed."
The Statesboro court is considered a Non-Resident Courthouse which means it is a facility with a courtroom that does not have a full-time district, magistrate, bankruptcy, or circuit judge in residence. That is why it is being considered for closure.
Snipes said even though Statesboro's court is a Non-Resident Courthouse, the number of filings tell the real story.
"Two of the last four years, Statesboro has had more criminal filings than the Brunswick division," he said. "This federal courthouse has much more activity than people realize. It has the highest usage of the courts in the Southern District that do not have a manned clerk's office as part of the facility."
A committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, a policy-making body for the federal courts, sent the latest list to the 13 circuit judicial councils for review this past February.
In a letter issued on April 11, the Judicial Council of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit recommended that of ten non-resident courthouses identified for potential closure in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit, all should remain open with the exception of Gadsden, Alabama. Those included in the recommendation to remain open are Athens, Dublin, Statesboro, Valdosta, and Waycross, Georgia.
The Statesboro court serves the citizens of Bulloch, Candler, Emanuel, Evans, Jenkins, Screven, Tattnall, and Toombs Counties.
"As the thirteenth colony, Georgia received one of the original federal courts," Edenfield said. "There aren't that many federal courthouses, and we are very fortunate to have one here."