Monday, November 28, 2005 by 2U4mb9C


									Monday, November 28, 2005
Bar Fights Partisan Judicial Races
Group’s GC: ‘Judges aren’t supposed to judge cases on political ideology’

Andy Peters
The State Bar of Georgia has placed itself firmly in opposition to a proposal supported by
some Republican officials that would inject partisanship into judicial elections.
At a Nov. 18 meeting in Athens, the State Bar’s Board of Governors voted to oppose a
bill pending since the 2005 session that would make judicial elections partisan. At the
same time, the board voted to support a ban on financial contributions to judicial
elections from political parties, a measure that effectively rebuked the Democratic Party
for its financial support of Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears in 2004.
The board also voted to support legislation that would set public defenders’ salaries at
90 percent of district attorneys’ salaries.

Eight states use partisan elections to select at least some state judges, according to the
American Bar Association: Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Louisiana, North Carolina,
Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia. The issue is being debated in Alabama where
the State Bar Association is supporting legislation to do away with partisan elections for
the state’s appellate judges. The state Republican Party is trying to block the legislation.
Georgia Rep. Bill Hembree, R-Douglasville, said he submitted a bill, House Resolution
855, to make judicial elections partisan because of what he perceived to be a liberal tilt
on the state and federal benches.

“If they continue to make decisions to push our country to the left, someone needs to
stand up to say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Hembree said. “Voters in this state traditionally see
Republicans being conservative and Democrats being liberal. If a party platform says
this and this, then you as a judge [elected in a partisan race] are generally going to
follow that philosophy.”

Hembree’s proposed constitutional amendment, which would require approval of two-
thirds of the Legislature and then be put to voters in a referendum, would allow
candidates for superior and state courts, as well as for the Georgia Supreme Court and
the Court of Appeals, to affiliate themselves with political parties.
Georgia banned partisan judicial elections for those courts in 1983, when Democrats
controlled the Legislature and the governor’s office but Republicans were beginning a
gradual rise to power.

“The shift to nonpartisan judicial elections was but one of a number of efforts by the
Democratic Party to delay the impact of a growing Republican Party,” said University of
Georgia political scientist Charles S. Bullock III.
Some Republicans said the bar shouldn’t insert itself into the debate. “This is the
essence of a political issue,” said J. Randolph Evans, general counsel of the Georgia
Republican Party.

But the bar has a right to take a position on the issue of judicial elections, said Bobby
Kahn, chairman of the state Democratic Party. Kahn also defended the Democrats’
actions in providing funds to Sears’ campaign.
“The Democratic Party will exercise our First Amendment right to defend judicial
candidates who are unfairly attacked by Gov. Perdue as retribution for decisions not to
his liking,” Kahn said.

Matthew H. Patton, a partner at Kilpatrick Stockton and a member of the Board of
Governors, agreed with Evans that the bar shouldn’t get involved. Patton said he’s
against partisan judicial elections, but nonetheless voted against the bar measure. “I
don’t believe it’s a subject which the Board of Governors should address.” He added that
he doesn’t think the Legislature will pass Hembree’s bill.
The bar isn’t allowed to spend members’ mandatory dues to lobby the Legislature, but it
can take positions on professional standards, said bar General Counsel William P. Smith
III. Because partisan judicial elections potentially would dilute the quality of the judiciary,
it’s acceptable for the bar to take a position on the issue, Smith said.

“In those jurisdictions where politics have become involved heavily in the elections of
judicial officers, the comfort the public has with the judicial system has decreased,”
Smith said. “Judges aren’t supposed to judge cases on political ideology; they just call
balls and strikes.

“If you are going into a courtroom where the judge is going to judge you on whether you
are a Democrat or a Republican, that’s not a healthy situation,” Smith said.
It’s essential for judicial elections to remain nonpartisan, otherwise the public loses trust
in the system, said Robert D. Ingram, president of the bar and a partner at Moore Ingram
Johnson & Steele in Marietta.

“The difference between us and totalitarian dictatorships like Hitler, Stalin, the Taliban
and Saddam Hussein is that they all had a weak justice system and a weak legal
system,” Ingram said.

Ads for Sears Helped Prompt Bill

The bar’s Board of Governors also voted during the Nov. 18 meeting to support
legislation introduced by Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, that would ban
contributions to judicial candidates by political parties. Her bill is House Bill 46.
The legislation was prompted, in part, by efforts Oliver’s party made in 2004 to re-elect
Sears. The state Democratic Party spent $150,000 on commercials that primarily
promoted Sears’ candidacy. While the expenditures apparently were legal, they provided
a convenient mechanism for the party to support Sears’ candidacy without running afoul
of the state law that places a $5,000 limit on individual campaign donations. Sears, who
became chief justice this year, won re-election over challenger G. Grant Brantley.
“I want to close the loophole that makes [party contributions to judicial elections] legal
today,” Oliver said.

Oliver’s bill does not include one of her earlier proposals to provide tax dollars for judicial
election campaigns.

The bar’s Board of Governors previously has endorsed measures to ban political parties
from contributing money to judicial campaigns.

Raises for All
The bar also voted to support potential legislation that would set public defenders’
salaries at 90 percent of district attorneys’ compensation. Public defenders expect such
a bill to be introduced in the coming session. PDs earn $87,593 a year, according to
O.C.G.A. § 17-12-25. That amount is 90 percent of DAs’ salaries, but if DAs receive a
raise, public defenders will not under current law.

“The adversarial system won’t work well unless the quality of the lawyer, including ability
and experience, is roughly equal on both sides,” said DeKalb County’s public defender,
Lawrence L. Schneider. “The state needs to pay both sides equally.”
The District Attorneys’ Association of Georgia has not taken a position on salaries for
public defenders, but the group probably will vote on the matter during its quarterly
meeting Dec. 1-2 at Lake Oconee, said Stephen D. Kelley, DA for the Brunswick Judicial

DAs last received a raise in fiscal 2005, when their salaries rose 2 percent to $98,926
from $97,326, said Randall W. Duncan, deputy director for operations for the
Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council. Before that increase, DAs had not received a raise since
fiscal 2002, Duncan said.

If DAs receive a 2 percent raise, the cost for giving a 2 percent raise to the state’s 42
public defenders would be $73,578. Assistant public defenders’ salaries are tied to the
salaries of public defenders; salary schedules for assistant PDs vary by experience level,
said B. Michael Mears, director of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council.
Although Mears believes the salaries of public defenders should be equal to those of
DAs, for now public defenders are seeking only to have their salaries tied to DAs’ pay.
“If the prosecutors don’t get a raise, then public defenders don’t get a raise,” Mears said.
“We think that would be fair.” r

Published in the Daily Report on November 28, 2005

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