HomeOpinionAustin RhodesPhilosophical Differences, Not Race, Driving Circuit Break Up

Philosophical Differences, Not Race, Driving Circuit Break Up

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In the last two weeks we have seen the debate over Columbia County’s separation from the Augusta Judicial Circuit go from concept to crafted legislation. Even the Democrat officials who dominate the City of Augusta know the numbers are not on their side when it comes to opposing the move. They have wisely decided to get on board with the plan. Not that there was much choice in the matter. It is a Republican-backed initiative, and the Republicans control all the buttons that must be pushed along the way in state government to make it happen.

Let’s clear the air once and for all as to why this is happening.

First, despite what some polite county politicians are saying, it is NOT all about saving money. The move may in fact end up saving money, but the vast majority of the conservatives who live in Columbia County really don’t care about that. We want a strong, anti-crime chief prosecutor.  A DA defense attorneys fear and Judges respect.

Second, and this needs to be said as loudly and clearly as possible: it has nothing to do with the race of the young gentleman recently elected our new District Attorney. That is a fool’s argument no matter who makes it.

The circuit’s current chief superior court judge is a “ball busting, crime hating, lock’em up and throw away the key” LEGEND who is beloved and respected by virtually every conservative who pays attention to the local court system.  His name is Carl Brown, and yes, just like the new DA Jared Williams, he is a black man.

I am told Judge Brown recently gave a full-throated and clear explanation as to why he believed the “break-up” of the circuit has come to pass, when during a private discussion of the matter, one of his fellow judges, a white man, speculated that the proposal was “race based.”

“No sir…”, Judge Brown reportedly replied, “…this is about a difference in judicial philosophy.”

You damn skippy!

For the record, Judge Brown and most of his fellow Judges are against the circuit break-up, for reasons of practicality and economics. But when it comes to the differences most Columbia County conservatives have with the stated judicial philosophies of Jared Williams, our objections are most logically sustained.

The Williams agenda was clearly spelled out in the months of campaign ads he ran. That, and the fact that he ran off the vast majority of the most experienced and sharpest prosecutors and investigators in the office prior to his first day on the job told us all we needed to know. His flat-out refusal to explain his personnel plans, or give any insight to remaining staff as to how certain cases were expected to proceed was also indefensible.

But hey, that race card.   

Ironically, just like the “unnamed” veteran judge who brought up the race card with Judge Brown, it seems to be a few rich old white guys who continue to play it.

Case in point: the misguided Jan. 8 missive sent to state leaders written by a well-heeled local lawyer who damn well oughta know better. I include a picture of the offending passage here, for fear some would doubt the quote. Hard to believe a guy that bills at his hourly rate came up with such drivel (“perception is more important than reality”  REALLY???), but it is not the first time he has been on the wrong end of an Augusta  judicial circuit controversy.

Excerpt from Jack Long’s Letter to George House Speaker David Ralston, dated Jan. 8, 2021. Provided by Austin Rhodes.

 So, interesting to see that name pop up. This man is the “poster boy” for battles over philosophical and political differences in the judicial circuit.

I first crossed swords with legendary Augusta attorney Jack Long when he pushed hard core liberal Carlisle Overstreet over conservative upstart DA Mike Eubanks, for a superior court judgeship in 1992. 

As District Attorney, Eubanks was a “law and order” VIKING who, unfortunately, started his political life as a left of center hippy.  When he grew out of his adolescent fascination with liberalism (his words back in the day, not mine), he became a prosecutor and quickly evolved a hero to many conservatives who had grown tired of weak local response to the criminal element. 

Eubanks had defeated the deeply flawed Democrat Augusta DA Sam Sibley in 1988, and for four years he threw lightning bolts, fire and brimstone at any felonious miscreant that came under indictment in the three-county circuit. 

The “long in the tooth” and predominantly left leaning superior court judges whom Eubanks was forced to practice before generally couldn’t stand him. That only empowered the DA, and his supporters even more.

Through the mere volume of his voice (and the eager pens of several well-placed media allies all too happy to report his concerns about lenient judges and light sentences), local judges were increasingly being put in the position of explaining themselves and justifying some pretty unjustifiable behavior behind the bench. They REALLY didn’t appreciate that.

After one full term prosecuting hoodlums and generally kicking ass and taking names in Augusta’s courtrooms, Eubanks decided to reach for the brass ring and take a shot at running against the recently appointed (not elected) Superior Court Judge Carlisle Overstreet.

Judge Overstreet is a nice guy.  He and his late wife were longtime friends of my family, going back decades. They were what my grandfather used to call “good people.” The judge was also the judicial equivalent of a limp wrist swinging a wet noodle.  And he was “all up the backside” of the Augusta legal cabal that “ran things” within the circuit for many years.  It would be quite a trick to accurately describe in this limited space the “HOLD” that a handful of local law firms had over the politics of the Augusta judicial circuit back in those days, but it was a very real phenomenon. That cabal and the judges they favored hated Mike Eubanks with a white-hot bloody passion. He didn’t play their games, he wouldn’t negotiate weak deals and he was cut-throat in the courtroom.

What followed was a “David vs Goliath” election fight that saw virtually the entire criminal bar line up (or “suck up”) behind Overstreet and sink tens of thousands of dollars into his campaign coffers (the most expensive judicial race in local history at the time).

Local attorneys knew the other sitting judges were watching, and keeping score, and none of them wanted to be on the wrong side of that battle, particularly when they all had to practice in front of Overstreets’ black-robed “fraternity.”

While Columbia County was growing into the electoral conservative powerhouse it would be for the next three decades, it wasn’t quite there yet. The non-partisan judicial race featured a metric ton of slimy political ads falsely painting Eubanks as a “fake conservative” who had been run out of a previous career in education for being a “radical liberal and controversial teacher.”  The campaign was based on rumors and exaggerations, but there is no doubt the mudslinging took its toll.   

Add to that an “unexpected bombshell” in the form of an 11th-hour Augusta Chronicle editorial page endorsement for the obviously liberal Overstreet, and it became pretty clear that Eubanks was a marked man.

The Chronicle endorsement really meant something to conservative candidates back in those days, and to say the decision “came out of nowhere” would be an immense understatement.  Keep in mind, this was July of 1992; there was no such thing as “social media” to question immediately the editorial page’s inexplicable betrayal of a strong and aggressive prosecutor like Mike Eubanks. The three hours of daily conservative local talk radio you have gotten used to hearing in Augusta, which certainly could have helped set the record straight, was at the time, only in its first full month of life on WGAC.

What went unexplained, then, was that the endorsement of Carlisle Overstreet came under strict orders from Augusta Chronicle publisher Billy Morris and was 100 percent opposed by then editorial chief Phil Kent. In recalling the clash just this past week, Phil told me writing the endorsement for the left-wing incumbent judge, over his friend and fellow “law and order” conservative was one of the most distasteful tasks he was ever ordered to perform for the paper.  Morris and Kent virtually never disagreed on endorsements, and the Overstreet-Eubanks contest may go down in their own history as the most significant local race which saw them on opposite sides of the fence.

Kent believes Morris was heavily lobbied by his own local legal team to make the controversial, and out of character, endorsement because of their own distaste for Eubanks’ style, and of course, to keep them all in the good graces of the entire collection of incumbent judges.

It worked.   

Overstreet collected 58 percent of the 42,677 Augusta judicial circuit votes, and Eubanks was sent back to private practice. The “cabal” of superior court judges and private attorneys who ran the circuit without challenge would continue in place for a few more years, until a man name Duncan Wheale came along and turned over their applecart…but that is a column for another day.

SIDEBAR: Jack Long resurfaced exactly 20 years after Overstreet’s first big win to file single handedly formal legal challenges to the candidacy of the very next man who dared to run against the judge, and that would be Juvenile Court Judge Willie Saunders.   

Saunders happened to be a black man. A few people suggested Long was working against the challenger because of his race, a charge that likely offended Long, I am sure.  As someone once said, “Perception is always more important than reality.”

*AHEM*

Long’s legal challenges to Saunders’ candidacy failed, but he was a flawed candidate mustering little support, and Overstreet easily won.

For the record, Long’s objections were based purely on concerns over professional fitness and philosophical differences. Imagine that.

Austin Rhodes is a Columnist for The Augusta Press. Reach him at Austin.rhodes@theaugustapress.com

6 COMMENTS

  1. Your insider information, is just more proof, it’s all about the MONEY. Look at Morris making his employee write an endorsement for the wrong person, just like they do today, it is all about the crooked lawyers, judges, and politicians getting rich while they screw the little-man local, state, and national (US). But thanks for writing such a good informative article.

  2. Interesting and very informative column as usual, Austin. Ever since I moved to Augusta a little over 30 years ago, I remember you regularly and vehemently venting your disapproval of Judge Overstreet. Now I have some idea of why. I have formed a very different perception from yours of Overstreet (and you know what they say about perception) after serving several times on juries in criminal cases over which he was presiding. My impression was and is that Overstreet was about the smartest man I’d ever seen. He treated everyone in the courtroom with respect, black or white, male or female, but there was never any doubt about who was in charge. His subtle sense of humor often went over the heads of the attorneys arguing before him. He was always paying careful attention to everything that happened in his courtroom, and I don’t believe he missed very much. He suffered a lot of fools, and seemed to think some of the goings-on were a hoot. I’m no liberal, whatever that means nowadays (just ask my little sister in MA, who probably thinks I’m a lowdown insurrectionist sympathizer, but is too polite to say so), but my impression is that Overstreet is no hardcore liberal. No hardcore liberal would have done what he did when his house was broken into (he shot the guy deader’n h**l). That said, I would not be surprised if he believes in tempering justice with mercy. As a juror I was never informed of the sentences he handed down to the defendants I participated in convicting, so I can’t comment on that, as I’ve heard you do. Overall Judge Overstreet earned my respect.

  3. When you have fanned the flame of racial discord for nearly two decades, it is hard to take you seriously when you say otherwise. Perhaps this isn’t about race. But you are not the messenger to convince people.

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