Daily Report, October 7, 2014
With at least three appellate judges expected to step down in the next four years, whoever takes office as governor in January will have the chance to leave a sizeable fingerprint on Georgia's judiciary.
State rules require appellate judges to retire by age 75 or lose their pension. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh Thompson, Presiding Justice P. Harris Hines and Court of Appeals Chief Judge Herbert Phipps will reach their 75th birthdays during the next gubernatorial term.
If re-elected, Republican incumbent Nathan Deal will be able to use the openings to increase his already considerable impact on the state's judiciary. Since first taking office in 2011, he has named 26 superior court judges, 23 state court judges and five appellate judges. Only two, Walker County State Court Judge Bruce Roberts and Conasauga Circuit Superior Court Judge David Blevins, have been defeated at the polls.
"I would appoint the same kind of people I've tried to appoint in openings that have been presented to me through this point in time," said Deal, who was a juvenile court judge before he entered full-time politics. "First and foremost, I look to appoint qualified individuals who take the job seriously and who don't try to be legislators and make laws from the bench."
Deal's Democratic opponent, former state Sen. Jason Carter, said he would try to appoint more diversity to the bench.
"One of the most important things a governor does is appoint judges. Above all else, my guiding principle will be finding people who are qualified, competent and fully committed to following the law and dispensing justice in a fair and even-handed manner," Carter said in a statement. "I'm also confident that the people who I appoint will reflect the growing diversity of our state."
Neither Carter nor his campaign staff clarified how they would recruit more women and minority judicial candidates.
Deal and his Judicial Nominating Commission—a panel of lawyers from various practice areas around the state who present the governor with a short list of candidates culled from all judicial applicants—have faced criticism from minority lawyer groups about lack of diversity among judicial appointees. In particular, the minority bars were riled by Deal's decisions to appoint white male judges to replace retiring black male judges in Fulton County.
In response, Deal said part of the problem was that well-qualified minority candidates were not applying. His JNC promised to work more closely with lawyer groups to identify and recruit more minority and women candidates.
"I've reached out to the African-American bar associations," Deal said last week. "I've made selections off some of the [candidate lists] they have suggested. I think it's important that everybody feels like they are part of the process."
Deal also pointed out that he is the first governor to appoint an Asian-American judge to the appellate bench. That was Judge Carla Wong McMillian, whom Deal elevated from Fayette County State Court to the Court of Appeals in January 2013.
Since fall 2013, Deal has added diversity to his JNC membership, as well. Recently added members include UPS attorney Darren Jones, who is African-American; state Rep. BJay Pak, R-Lilburn, who is Korean-American; and Duluth lawyer Lee W.O. Shafer, who is a woman.
Carter's campaign didn't respond to a question from the Daily Report about what his JNC's membership would look like.
Besides race and gender, judicial appointments also should represent a diversity of practice areas, Deal said. He then took a swing at his opponent.
Carter, he said, "comes from one of the most liberal law firms in the state of Georgia. They don't represent the mainstream of judicial thought in this state."
Carter campaign spokesman Bryan Thomas responded, saying Carter, who is an associate at Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, would consider appointing Republicans to the bench.
"Unlike Gov. Deal, Sen. Carter doesn't think our justice system should be politicized," Thomas wrote in an email. "He'll appoint the best judges to the bench, and it won't matter if they're Democrats, Republicans or Independents."
While there have been Democrats among Deal's trial court level appointments, several of his appellate appointments carry strong conservative credentials. Supreme Court Justice Keith Blackwell is a longtime member of the Federalist Society. Court of Appeals Judge William Ray II was a Republican state legislator before joining the Gwinnett County Superior Court, and fellow Court of Appeals Judge Elizabeth Branch worked for the administration of President George W. Bush.
Local media and polls are predicting a tight race between Deal and Carter in the Nov. 4 election, suggesting the candidacy of Libertarian Andrew Hunt could force a runoff.