Athens Voters Will Have No Voice in the 2022 Solicitor’s Race

Athens-Clarke County Solicitor C.R. Chisholm.

Athens-Clarke County Solicitor General C.R. Chisholm pulled a fast one on us last month. 

Chisholm was first appointed the county’s misdemeanor prosecutor in 2007, then ran unopposed in successful reelection bids in 2010, 2014 and 2018. As this year’s Mar. 11 qualifying deadline approached, it seemed a given that Chisholm would run for a fourth full term and, in all likelihood, face no serious opposition.

Instead, he pulled a good-old-boy switcheroo. Around 9 a.m. on Mar. 11—with only three hours remaining for citizens to qualify for the upcoming May 24 primary election—Chisholm walked into the ACC Board of Elections offices with his chief assistant solicitor, Will Fleenor. And it was Fleenor, not Chisholm, who smacked down the $3,824.19 qualifying fee, thus guaranteeing he’d be the sole candidate in this year’s election for his boss’s $127,473-a-year job.

As solicitor general, Chisholm is responsible for charging and prosecuting all misdemeanor defendants in our community—thousands of cases each year. In 2021, nearly 2,000 such cases were prosecuted in State Court, while another 13,237 criminal and traffic cases were brought in Municipal Court. Among the countless number of misdemeanor crimes are trespassing, loitering, aggressive panhandling, DUI and other traffic-related offenses, simple battery, possession of a drug object, obstruction, public indecency, shoplifting, giving a false name to a police officer and theft by deception.

In the 15 years Chisholm has been our solicitor general, his office has prosecuted tens of thousands of misdemeanor cases in both State and Municipal courts. These prosecutions have resulted in defendants receiving hundreds of thousands of months on probation and hundreds of thousands of dollars in court fines and fees. Since 2007, Chisolm’s prosecutors have kept misdemeanor defendants in jail for thousands and thousands of days, or under house arrest with electronic monitoring devices strapped to their ankles. The solicitor general’s office has succeeded in physically barring scores of defendants from their homes, their neighborhoods—even from all of Athens-Clarke County.  

The Athens Area Courtwatch Project is an all-volunteer effort to monitor what goes on in our local courtrooms and criminal legal system. Our observers spend lots of time in both the State and Municipal courtrooms. We’re concerned that Chisholm’s Mar. 11 maneuver to secretly hand-pick his replacement leaves no real opportunity for an open and honest public debate that might generate fresh new ideas on ways our community could minimize the criminalization of addiction, homelessness, mental illness and poverty. Chisholm’s election-time machinations smack of nefarious and elitist politics.

Moreover, something is wrong, we think, to continue with a punishment system that routinely arrests, jails and prosecutes thousands of mostly non-serious and non-violent offenders, many of whom suffer from addiction and mental illness, and are homeless. The majority of those caught up in ACC’s “misdemeanorland” are Black. And more than 90% of all defendants who are prosecuted enter guilty pleas. Almost by default, our misdemeanor courts operate as a well-oiled front door to the prison industrial complex.

When Chisholm rides off into the sunset at the end of this year, his cherry-picked successor will inherit an annual $1.4 million budget, a staff of 18 people and lots of discretionary power when it comes to deciding who should be charged with a crime, prosecuted and punished. Let’s hope Will Fleenor uses his authority wisely and humanely and will work to fix a very broken system, a system that too often denies the dignity of the many people who are swept up into the petty-offense process.