By: J. Randolph Evans
In Georgia, Republican lawyers have always been a small and inconsequential lot. One hundred and fifty years of Democratic rule meant that as a practical matter their opinions were not worth much.
The fate of Republican lawyers started to change some as Republican Presidents came along with Presidential appointments to the federal bench and U.S. Attorneys’ offices. Even then, their influence was pretty weak because the Georgia bar remained dominated by Democratic lawyers. Indeed, a powerful few Democratic lawyers were actually household names enjoying the spoils of Democratic control.
There were a few Republican lawyers who suffered through the lean times back in the day. Matthew (Matt) Patton, Oscar Persons, and Frank Strickland are some good examples. All were (and still are) some of Georgia’s most talented and effective lawyers. Yet, with Democratic Speaker Tom Murphy and an unbroken series of Democratic governors in control, they were on the wrong end of a system that rewarded friends and punished enemies. Make no mistake, in Speaker Murphy’s world, Republican lawyers either did not exist or were definitely the enemy.
In fact, when Attorney General Mike Bowers switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, the entire political and legal worlds were shocked and bewildered. How could he?
If Georgia Republicans could meet in a phone booth in those days, Republican lawyers could meet on the stool.
Things change. With two successive Republican administrations, Republican lawyers have seen their plight dramatically improve in less than ten years. Lawyers like Tex McIver (Vice Chair of the State Election Board) and Ben Vinson (Chair of the Immigration Board) have emerged as significant policy makers.
The Speaker of the Georgia General Assembly is a Republican lawyer, as are the chairs of various House and Senate Committees in the Georgia legislature. Sam Olens, Georgia’s Attorney General, is a Republican lawyer. Ryan Teague, the Executive Counsel for Governor Deal, is one of Georgia’s most influential attorneys and is a Republican.
The list goes on.
The fact is that many more Republican lawyers are now serving throughout Georgia state government in key roles than at any time in Georgia history. That fact does not include the roles that Republican lawyers play in connection with Georgia’s two Republican United States Senators and seven Republican Congressmen.
While still relegated by the State Bar of Georgia to outsider status, Republican lawyers have become important voices in the governance of Georgia. Republican lawyers like Patrick Millsaps at Hall Booth Smith & Slover, Stefan Passantino at McKenna Long & Aldridge, Doug Chalmers at The Political Law Group, Bert Guy, and Josh Belinfante are just a few of the important players among Republican lawyers advising Georgia officials making key decisions.
And, then there is Anne Lewis of Strickland Brockington Lewis. She is currently the General Counsel of the Georgia Republican Party. Much more importantly, she (along with her partner Frank Strickland) has come to dominate an important area of federal law as few lawyers have. This dominance has had a tremendous impact on the political landscape in Georgia.
Back in 2001, Ms. Lewis and Mr. Strickland, working with then Minority Leader (now Congressman) Lynn Westmoreland and then GOP Chairman Ralph Reed, challenged the redistricting maps for Georgia’s Congressional districts drawn by then Governor Roy Barnes. The maps were so flawed that both Democrats and Republicans thought the maps were crazy. Ms. Lewis and Mr. Strickland proved the maps were illegal in court and forced them to be redrawn. The courts did not just throw the maps out. They awarded attorneys fees against the State.
So, redistricting came along again last year in 2011. This time the Georgia Legislature hired Ms. Lewis and Mr. Strickland to help them draw the new maps in a way that was legal and made sense. They did. Democrats challenged the maps, and President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice put Georgia through the wringer. But in the end, Ms. Lewis and Mr. Strickland successfully defended the maps and even President Obama’s Department of Justice ultimately approved them.
These are no small things. Some of the best lawyers in America came in to fight for Governor Barnes’ illegal maps in 2001 and against Georgia’s legal maps in 2011. They were no match. Georgia lawyers Anne Lewis and Frank Strickland won.
So why all of this ink about “Republican lawyers?” Well, there was a time when Republican lawyers could not get their name in the newspaper if they tried (absent a felony or some egregious action).
Things change. Today, rarely a day goes by that a Republican lawyer is not mentioned for their role in shaping Georgia’s future. Sometimes, it makes sense to stop and take note of what has happened, even though most folks prefer not to discuss it or acknowledge it.
Things do change.