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Thompson becoming Ogeechee Circuit’s 4th Superior Court judge as court system grows
Another public defender, assistant DA, judges’ staff attorney, secretary also to be added at state expense
Judge Ronald K. “Ronnie” Thompson
Judge Ronald K. “Ronnie” Thompson

With his appointment by Gov. Brian Kemp as the fourth Superior Court judge of the until now three-judge Ogeechee Judicial Circuit, Judge Ronald K. “Ronnie” Thompson is expected to begin handling a share of the caseload soon.

Politics and preparations to add a fourth judge in the circuit, which includes Bulloch, Effingham, Jenkins and Screven counties, began several years ago. The new judgeship was created, but postdated to begin this year, with the Georgia General Assembly’s passage in early 2020 of House Bill 786, which also created additional judgeships in two other circuits. Funding was approved in 2021 with the current budget.

After receiving applications and nominations from lawyers, the statewide Judicial Nominating Commission forwarded a shortened list of three candidates to the governor in September. Those three – Thompson, for 19 years now judge of the Effingham County State Court; Martha C. Hall, partner in the Hall & Navarro firm in Statesboro and Springfield; and Matt Hube, owner of the Hube Law Firm in Statesboro – were personally interviewed by Kemp.

He announced his choice Friday.

“I’m glad Governor Kemp picked me,” Thompson said Tuesday.  “The other two individuals, Martha and Matt, they’re very well qualified. But I’m glad he picked me. You know, I’ve been doing this for 19 years and I just felt it was time to try something different, and I’m qualified, ready to serve, looking forward to serving.”

Sworn in as an attorney in the State Bar of Georgia in 1990, Thompson had attained his Juris Doctorate from Cumberland School of Law, a unit of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Before that, he graduated from what was then Armstrong State College with a bachelor’s degree in history.

He first practiced law in Savannah for five years before moving his practice to Rincon in Effingham County. He also served about a year and a half as Rincon’s part-time Municipal Court judge. He took office as full-time Effingham County State Court judge on Jan. 1, 2003, after winning an election over two other candidates, and has since been re-elected without opposition multiple times.

 

‘Champion of Justice’

Judges of Georgia’s county-level State Courts – which on the criminal justice side handle mostly misdemeanors and traffic offenses – seldom see high-profile cases.  But in 2018 the Georgia Council of State Court judges presented Thompson the Champion of Justice Award for his earlier handling of a civil case with national implications, Jane Doe v. USA Gymnastics.

Although that lawsuit did not directly involve Larry Nassar, the former U.S. women’s national team doctor now serving prison sentences totaling more than 100 years for sexual assaults on young female gymnasts, it did involve a family’s attempt to hold USA Gymnastics accountable for sexual abuse of girls by a Savannah coach. Thompson’s order unsealing some of USA Gymnastics’ records, “coaches’ files,” led to exposure of complaints the organization had previously kept from public view.

“I guess justice was served there, but I wasn’t an advocate, I’m a referee,” Thompson said Tuesday.  “A judge is supposed to present a level playing field, and I’ve been trying to do that for 19 years. I’m looking forward to doing it for a while in Superior Court.”

His current appointment is not for a full four years, but only until 2024, when he will have to stand for election, he said.

Thompson is slated to be sworn in Tuesday, Jan. 18, in a ceremony at the Capitol in Atlanta. He is limited to 15 seats for guests, and plans to be accompanied by his wife, Crystal, and some other family members, friends and local officials.

 

Help with workload

After about a week to transition, Thompson will be joining the other three Ogeechee Circuit judges – Judge Lovett Bennett Jr., Judge Michael T. Muldrew and Chief Judge F. Gates Peed – in presiding Superior Court cases.

“We’re glad to have a fourth position as our workload per judge exceeded the workload of the judges in other circuits, taking into account all manner of different variables,” Peed said in a phone interview Tuesday. “So we’re glad to have another judge, and that will spread the workload out better and hopefully provide for more efficient and timely handling of cases.”

He said it is difficult to say what a “usual” caseload is for the circuit’s Superior Courts, since they are still operating in “the COVID era” with some remaining changes in operations and lingering backlog.

By rough estimates Peed gave for criminal cases only, Bulloch County’s Superior Court currently has about 850 active cases, Effingham’s about 540, and Jenkins County’s and Screven County’s courts together, about 225 active criminal cases or more. So that’s more than 1,600 cases in the four counties, or an average of more than 530 criminal cases each for three judges or 400 each for four judges, without considering the civil suits and other types of cases pending before the courts.

“We have some backlog, hopefully not as bad as in some other circuits, but it will certainly be a great plus to have an additional judge full time to help handle that and also manage the usual caseload that exists all the time,” Peed said.

With the expansion to a fourth judge, the circuit is also receiving state funding for a legal assistant or secretary for Thompson, an additional staff attorney to work for all of the judges, an added attorney for the District Attorney’s Office and another for the Public Defenders Office.

Meanwhile, Effingham County is in need of a new State Court judge. Thompson would have been up for re-election to that office this year, with his term set to end Dec. 31. Now, the governor will probably appointment someone to serve out the year, and candidates can qualify to seek a full term, Thompson said.

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