Rockdale County Commission Chairman Oz Nesbitt Sr. announced the creation of the court on March 15 in his State of the County speech.
“We’ve gotten away from educating people why it’s just not a good practice to throw debris out of your car or your truck going down the highway,” Nesbitt said. “You don’t just take your household garbage and waste and just dump it on the side of the road.”
Economic development has been a priority for the Augusta-based Nesbitt since he was elected as chairman of the county commission in November 2016. He assured resident that creation of the environmental court will not increase their taxes, since funding will come from the general budget.
“Other courts focus on criminal and civil cases,” Nesbitt said. “While this court will sit in on the civil side, it will be different in that it will highlight ordinance violations and will streamline the process of addressing these issues with violators so that we can resolve them quicker, which means getting faster results.”
Marty Jones, executive director of the Conyers-Rockdale Economic Development Council, also backed the idea of speeding up the county’s processing of environmental violations.
“Whether it’s litter, dilapidated structures, abandoned cars - it’s the environmental issues in the community that no one seems to be doing anything with,” Jones said in an interview. “The plan is to have a separate channel for all of these types of events to go through so everyone in that channel understands what we’re talking about.”
The court will be under the authority of Chief Magistrate Judge Phinia Aten.
Around the world, about 44 countries have some form of environmental court, but American Bar Association records show that Vermont was the first state to open such a court in 1990.
Though such courts are not uncommon in the United States at the municipal level, no other state followed in Vermont’s footsteps until Hawaii in 2015.
David Sakoda, program specialist at Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, said the court has already brought results to the state nicknamed Paradise of the Pacific.
“We’re seeing good dispositions in favor of the environment, and the judges becoming more aware of why we have these natural-resource laws, and the value in imposing adequate sentences to deter future violators,” Sakoda said in a phone interview.
While his department lacks statistics on repeat offenders for now, Sakoda emphasized the importance of weeding out environmental-type cases.
In the old system, “we’d have a lot of illegal hunting, fishing, and illegal activity at state parks mixed in with assaults and other criminal activity,” Sakoda said. “A lot of the judges, we felt, wouldn’t give appropriate sentences for fishing violations - things people might consider minor infractions.”
Sakoda also noted that the need for more environmental courts is growing.
“With climate change it’s going to be important to be able to enforce the laws that protect our environment,” Sakoda said.
Hawaii’s Legislature created the new court by assigning certain district court judges to handle environmental cases.
“It makes sense to implement [environmental courts] on a state and local level, rather than federal, because there are so many different types of issues and different locations,” Sakoda added. “However, there are lot of federal issues that can transcend the boundaries.”