The District Attorney’s Office for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit hasn’t seen a contested general election race in 24 years, and arguably there hasn’t been a close race for district attorney in 28 years, since Glenn Thomas Jr., who already marked 25 years in office by the time of the 1992 Democratic primary, bested local attorney Jim Chamberlin by 1,469 votes.
Brunswick attorney Keith Higgins is looking to change those facts as he launches his campaign to unseat incumbent District Attorney Jackie Johnson. Higgins, who is running as an independent, discussed his entry into the race Wednesday with local news media at Brunswick Country Club.
Higgins, who worked as a prosecutor in the circuit for more than 20 years and as a defense attorney for nearly a decade more, said he feels the office is a calling. He also said he feels it’s time for a change — that some things need to be conducted differently to provide fairness for everyone in the system.
“There’s a situation where now, if someone’s indicted and then re-indicted and a charge is added — and this may be getting into too much specifics, but … currently the district attorney issues another warrant to re-arrest that person, even though the new charge that’s added is basically the same thing they were already arrested for,” Higgins said. “So, then they’re re-arrested for that, they go back to jail, have to post another bond.
“It disrupts their lives, causes harm to people who are merely accused of crime and presumed innocent. That practice will stop if I’m elected.”
He said another unfair situation is when someone’s released on a pretrial bond, there’s a number of fees involved in satisfying conditions of those bonds that result in a financial hardship.
“When those cases are dismissed because it’s determined that those people really didn’t do what they’re accused of doing, or the determination is made there’s not sufficient evidence to prove it, the District Attorney’s Office currently doesn’t notify defense counsel or the person who’s arrested that their case has been dismissed,” Higgins said.
“What that then causes is those people to go through the unfairness of still living under those burdens and restrictions that were placed upon them before. That’s something that will change immediately upon me being elected.”
He also noted delays in the proceedings can be unfair to victims and victims’ families — one method Higgins would like to see that he said would speed things up is provide discovery to the defense at the time of arraignment. Under the law, it doesn’t have to be provided until 10 days before trial. Also, he said he’d put into practice announcing the status of cases for trial at a more expedient time than, for example, the week before the monthly calendar call.
By running as an independent, Higgins needs the signatures of 5 percent of the number of registered voters in the circuit as of the 2016 general election. He has until July 14 to file his nomination petition with at least 4,991 verified signatures of voters in the counties of Glynn, Camden, Appling, Jeff Davis and Wayne.
Higgins’ candidacy is a bit of a surprise for more than one reason. In the past 28 years, there was primary opposition only three times to the person who won in November, and the last general election showdown had Republican nominee Stephen Kelly, now a superior court judge, defeating Democratic nominee John Johnson 54.9 percent to 45.1 percent — an ultimate difference of a little more than 4,000 votes.
Jackie Johnson’s run opposed in each of the past three general elections since receiving appointment to fill the end of Kelley’s term in 2010. However, Jonathan Miller, who worked as a local assistant district attorney from 2005 to 2012, challenged Johnson in the Republican primary. He lost in a rout, 68.57-31.43 percent, a difference of more than 10,000 votes out of more than 27,800 cast.
Though both Johnson and Miller left that primary with a sizable about of campaign debt, Johnson — according to the Sept. 30, 2012, reports — outspent him sizably, noting $52,798.01 in expenditures to Miller’s $18,392.30.
Johnson’s loaded up her campaign account at the outset of election years with six-figure loans that can do a lot to discourage competition, both in the primary and in the general election. According to her 2019 end-of-year report, she has more than $126,000 on hand.
Higgins indicated he can be competitive on the campaign spending end, but to what degree is unknown until his first disclosure report posts at the end of the month.