The State Bar of Georgia’s Committee to Promote Inclusion in the Profession presents its Commitment to Equality Awards to persons who have shown a strong commitment to promoting diversity in the profession and who are committed to providing opportunities that foster a more diverse legal profession for members of underrepresented groups. This year the Committee has selected Southern Regional Council President Charles S. Johnson to receive its Randolph Thrower Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of forty years of work to secure a more accountable and representative judiciary. The award will be presented at the Bar's Annual meeting in Hilton Head in June.
Georgia’s constitution provides that most of the State’s trial and appellate court judges are chosen by popular election, and that mid-term vacancies are filled by gubernatorial appointment. However, many members of the public know very little about the qualifications of prospective judges and are disengaged from the process of judicial selection. In the 1970s, the leaders of Atlanta’s historically Black Gate City Bar Association decided to take on the task of working to make the judiciary more accountable and representative. This decision stemmed from the belief that judicial accountability requires that the courts must be representative of the communities that they serve; that judicial diversity also promotes impartiality by ensuring that all viewpoints, perspectives and values are part of the decision-making process. Accordingly, these leaders began to erect an infrastructure which enabled them to directly engage with the judicial selection process while educating the public on the importance of judicial selection.
In 1974, the City of Atlanta adopted a new charter which gave the Gate City Bar Association equal status with the Atlanta Bar Association in recommending candidates to the Mayor for vacancies in the City and Municipal Courts. In 1977, the Gate City Bar formalized its involvement in the process by which Georgia’s Governor made appointments to statewide judicial positions and to the local courts of Fulton County. As part of this involvement, the Association regularly polled its members on the relative qualifications of judicial candidates, and it also met with the Judicial Nominating Commission (the “JNC,” created to screen candidates and make recommendations to the Governor) to share the Association’s views.
With the Presidency and Congress both in Democratic hands for the first time in several years, the Gate City Bar played a leading role in a community–wide effort to influence the implementation of the Omnibus Judgeship Bill of 1978, which ultimately resulted in the creation of five new judgeships in the Northern District of Georgia. This effort included a study of the lack of diversity among federal judges in the Southern states, as well as meetings with representatives of the Senate, the Justice Department, and the American Bar Association, and it is regarded by some as playing a role in the nomination and confirmation of Horace T. Ward as Georgia’s first African-American federal district judge.
The Association also served as a forum for the discussion of judicial elections. For example, in 1980 a position became vacant on the Superior Court of Fulton County, requiring a county-wide election. Five candidates stepped forward for this vacancy, including one who was a sitting member of the Atlanta City Council and another who was a prominent figure in the Atlanta Bar Association. Both the Atlanta Bar and the Gate City Bar polled their members as to the relative merits of the candidates, and the results of both of these polls were highly publicized. Predictably, the highest ratings in the Atlanta Bar’s poll went to the candidate who was one of the Atlanta Bar's most active members. In the poll conducted by the Gate City Bar Association, the highest ratings went to Clarence Cooper, who had previously served as Staff Attorney for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Assistant Fulton County District Attorney, and Judge of the Atlanta Municipal Court. The candidate who received the highest ratings in the Atlanta Bar’s poll went on to obtain the endorsement of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. However, following an energetic and ground-breaking campaign, it was Judge Cooper, who had received the highest ratings in the Gate City Bar poll, who was ultimately chosen by the voters, becoming the first African in Georgia history to take office by county-wide election.
The election of Judge Cooper showed that, given an appropriate level of public engagement, the electoral process afforded the opportunity to select – in the first instance, rather than to merely re-elect - highly-qualified judges who were also representative of the communities they served. This lesson was further illustrated by the subsequent popular election of judges such as A. L. Thompson, Leah Sears, and Kimberly Adams.
A number of bar leaders played critical roles in this process. Among them was Tom Sampson who, as Gate City’s President in 1977, urged the creation of a judicial selection initiative within the Bar. To carry out this initiative, Sampson chose Charles S. Johnson. Johnson served for twenty years as Chair of the Atlanta Judicial Commission, where he worked with Mayors Maynard Jackson, Andrew Young and Bill Campbell to create a highly-qualified and broadly representative Municipal Court bench. He founded Gate City’s Judicial Nominating Committee, oversaw the Association’s judicial polls, and served as the Association’s liaison with the JNC. He and others raised the filing fee for Clarence Cooper’s successful campaign of 1980, and he also served as Judge Cooper’s Campaign Treasurer. He also played a key role in the campaign of A.L. Thompson.
More recently, Johnson has worked with other bar leaders (including past Presidents of Gate City and the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys) to reverse the recent erosion of diversity in Atlanta’s judiciary. This group’s efforts have included frequent “op-eds”, alliances with community-based organizations, and engagement with public officials (ranging from local legislators to the White House Counsel). The group has also sought to inspire a new generation of advocates who will take the lead in recruiting, vetting, encouraging and supporting highly-qualified and diverse candidates for elevation through the elective and appointive processes.