The 11th Circuit has some harsh words

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					Judicial Qualifications

The 11th Circuit has some harsh words
for Georgia's judicial-election speech police
By Tom Bennett
   James C. Rawls is the lawyer for the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission. On
the morning of July 17, he faced the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, opened his
notebook, and confidently began to speak.
    He got out "May it please the court," and a half-dozen more words. Then Chief Judge
Gerald B. Tjoflat broke in.
    "What concerns me is this canon (in the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct)," Judge
Tjoflat said. I can't think of anything more chilling."
   Canon 7(B)(1((D) affects speech by judges and candidates in elections. Judge Willis B.
Hunt struck it last August in federal court while dismissing claims for damages and a
special election. Rawls is appealing that ruling on behalf of the JQC, hoping to save the
    "It's shot through with judgement calls about what the candidates can and can't do,"
Judge Tjoflat said.
     Rawls broke in to talk about the makeup of the JQC's Committee for Judicial Election
    "I don't care who's on the committee," Judge Tjoflat said, breaking in again.
   "I'm worried about this committee sitting there and making this statement six days
before the election."
   That was the case when Atlanta lawyer George Weaver, a former Georgia deputy
attorney general, challenged incumbent Justice Leah Sears in the 1998 election. His
television commercial criticized her decisions. The JQC committee rebuked him on
election eve, leading to his suit, Weaver v. Bonner, now in federal court.
    "If I were a candidate I wouldn't want Big Brother making a statement like that,"
Judge Tjoflat cont inued.
  "If I'm in the heart of the debate and I'm asked a question and I've got this committee in
the back of my mind, what am I going to do?"
    Georgia has contested elections, and so it has "options other than silencing," he said.
  "The candidate doesn't know if Big Brother is going to clobber him on his own
initiative, and when, when is the shoe going to drop?"
   Weaver is represented by David J. Myers of Lord, Bissell & Brook of Atlanta. Myers
attacked the canon and the Judicial Qualifications Commission rule that sets up a
Committee on Judicial Election Intervention.
     "This canon and Rule 27 are sloppy and unconstitutional," Myers said. "We ask the
court to strike Rule 27 and reinstate the damage claims."
   Weaver said he mortgaged his DeKalb County home for $100,000 to pay for the
television commercial.
  Georgia has contested elections, but practically speaking, governors appoint them near
the ends of their terms. Justices then are listed on ballots, their records on the court
mysteries to the state's voters, and they win easily.
   "The rules, written and unwritten, are so decidedly stacked in favor of incumbents that
the Georgia constitution has, for all intents and purposes, been dissolved," Jim Wooten
wrote in The Atlanta Journal. "A paternalistic legal-political conspiracy avoids real
   "Judges resign before their terms expire, allowing the governor to appoint a successor.
Then everybody locks arms. Rules are devised to keep outsiders out."
     If he succeeded, Weaver would benefit every future challenge and alter the court.
    "That's my goal," Weaver said. "I want to clear the way for others to run for the
offices in the future."
    The citizen appointments on the Judicial Qualifications Commission currently are
held by journalists, W.H. "Dink" Nesmith of Community Newspapers Inc. in Athens and
Marianne Thomasson of the Newnan Times-Herald. According to Rule 27 of the JQC,
one of them must serve on the Committee for Judicial Election Intervention next year.

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