The only Superior Court election here without an incumbent in at least the last 40 years was in 2002, when Joe Gaines declined to retire early to allow the governor to appoint his successor. The subsequent election drew seven candidates and resulted in the election of David Sweat, who retired before the end of his term last fall because of family illness, paving the way for Gov. Nathan Deal to appoint State Rep. Regina Quick to the bench.
The other incumbent judge up for election this year is Eric Norris, who was appointed by Deal to fill a new judgeship. He is opposed by Allison Mauldin, wife of District Attorney Ken Mauldin and chief deputy district attorney in the nearby Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit.
Lawyers have the greatest interest in who will be judge. Based strictly on which candidates they’re supporting with their contributions this time, lawyers prefer Quick and Norris. Campaign finance statements show that Quick has raised $62,000, with 53 lawyers contributing half her total. Her opponent, Lisa Lott, has raised $40,000, with 42 lawyers contributing, but making up only a fourth of her total.
Norris’ contributions total $37,500, with 89 lawyers giving three-fourths of that amount. Mauldin, who got into the race late, has raised only $3,500, excluding her own money. Only one lawyer is among her contributors.
One advantage of incumbency is that lawyers see how a judge operates, and if they’re comfortable with a judge, they’re less likely to want a change. That makes the challenger’s job even harder. In the present instance, both Quick and Norris had their own private practices before they became judges, and they handled cases and clients familiar to all the lawyers who try cases before them. Lott, on the other hand, has for most of her career been a public defender, assisting poorer clients who are not paying for her services. Mauldin, as a career prosecutor, raises a red flag for attorneys who try criminal cases, as most do.
So, it is no surprise that local lawyers have voted with their dollars in favor of the incumbent judges. It’s no surprise, either, that the election of judges puts the candidates and the lawyers alike in an awkward situation. Lawyers have to make their living practicing in front of whoever is elected, so they naturally want to be counted among the supporters, rather than the opponents, of the winning judge. Judges, of course, are sworn to uphold the law impartially, so they certainly don’t want to be in any possible position of appearing to favor a contributor. Still, money is given and received, and that’s the system we play under, even though most lawyers and judges would prefer something different.
The de facto something different has traditionally been appointment by the governor. Gaines was originally appointed to fill a new judgeship. Lawton Stephens was appointed to fill the vacancy created by Judge James Barrow’s death. Sweat won the contested election to succeed Gaines. Steve Jones was appointed to fill a new judgeship. Patrick Haggard was appointed to fill the vacancy when Jones was appointed federal district judge. Then Norris and Quick were appointed. Some of the appointed judges have had opposition at re-election time.
Lott makes the point in her campaign that our local judges should not be chosen in Atlanta, i.e. by the governor, and she’s right about that. Our law provides for the direct election of judges, but our practice takes advantage of interim appointments, and in reality all of our current judges have been appointed by the governor. A vote for Lott and Mauldin would be a protest against that practice, but the majority of the lawyers who make their living in front of judges have already put their money behind the incumbents as not only the probable winners but also as fair and competent judges. It remains to be seen whether a majority of the voters agree.
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