November 9, 2016
As leaders of the state's largest African-American lawyers' groups, Holland & Knight partner Charles Johnson III and AT&T in-house counsel Suzanne Ockleberry have been working for decades to increase diversity in judicial elections and appointments. But a few years ago, they began to see crucial gains being lost. African-American judges in Atlanta and other cities were retiring and being replaced with whites. Some cities had never had an African-American judge.
They started Advocacy for Action in 2013. This year, they've begun to reverse the trend with elections and appointments of diverse judges in different courts around the state.
Johnson, former president of the Gate City Bar Association, and Ockleberry, former president of the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys, brought luminaries from both groups together to take action. Their first step was to talk.
They put their concerns and their case into a letter—four pages single spaced—which the Daily Report published in 2012. They gave it the headline: "Will the last African-American judge please turn out the lights?"
They called it a crisis that fed on silence and apathy. "The idea that the judiciary should reflect the best and brightest legal minds, regardless of race, will be a quaint bygone idea," they wrote. They quoted Frederick Douglass: "Power concedes nothing without a demand."
They issued a call to action. "The question we must ask is what can we do, personally and as a community. The answer is we must speak."
And speak they did—to community groups, continuing legal education events, panel discussions and on social media. They made their research and statistics available on their own website. They began a targeted campaign to make people aware of the importance of electing representative judges. They recorded videos and posted them on YouTube. They encouraged sitting judges to stay in office long enough to open their seats in an election, rather than allowing a governor to appoint a replacement. In some instances, they targeted incumbents with opposition for re-election. They helped fund campaigns through a political action committee and a private corporation that could accept anonymous donations. They learned that plenty of lawyers would gladly give up the tax deduction in exchange for not having to publicly oppose a sitting judge. They recruited qualified minority lawyers to seek judicial office either through election or appointment. And they communicated with decision-makers to ensure that qualified diverse candidates were included in consideration for appointments.
The process has not been easy. Last year, lawyers involved with the group sued Gov. Nathan Deal to block his naming of three white judges to fill three new positions on the Georgia Court of Appeals. They lost. But they made their point nonetheless. This year, the governor named an African-American judge to that court.
Last year, the group successfully lobbied the Cobb County Superior Court for the appointment of an African-American woman as chief magistrate judge. They backed an African-American woman appointed by the governor to fill an open seat in Macon. And in this year's elections, Fulton County Superior Court gained its first new African-American judges in many years.
They measure their success in tiny increments.
"Every once in a while, I think we are heard," said Johnson. "There is some heightened awareness of the importance of voting, and of becoming informed about candidates. There is less of a tendency to ignore these races. We've had something to do with that."
This work is not part of their day jobs, Ockleberry noted. "We do this because we believe in our heart of hearts in the mission of this organization," she said. "A more representative and accountable judiciary is what we're seeking."