By: J. Randolph Evans
Qualifying for public office in Georgia has come and gone. As a result, the field of candidates has now been set, with the choices for Georgia’s voters locked in.
The old adage is that more elections are decided on qualifying day than election day. That statement has never been more true than in Georgia’s 2012 judicial elections. Certainly, by any measure, the pattern of judicial elections changed dramatically over the course of the last two years.
When this election year cycle started in 2010, four justices (a majority) on the Georgia Supreme Court were up for reelection. These included Justices Carol Hunstein, Hugh Thompson, Harold Melton, and George Carley.
Many people expected a flurry of activity as various groups lined up to take advantage of the opportunity to change the direction of the Court in just one election. With a majority of the Court at play, a variety of interest groups of all persuasions started to vet potential candidates as a slate to challenge all four incumbents.
After all, with most other Constitutional officers, including the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General not up for election until 2014, the Georgia Supreme Court Justices are the highest-ranking elected Georgia officials up for election in 2012. Electing four would be tantamount to electing a Governor or a Speaker.
Then, things changed. Justice Carley announced his retirement from the Georgia Supreme Court, opening up an appointment for Governor Nathan Deal to Georgia’s highest court. Justice Carley’s decision had two significant impacts.
First, it left three justices up for election in 2012, not four – the majority.
Second, and more importantly, for lawyers who want to serve on the Georgia Supreme Court this provided an easier path than challenging an incumbent justice in a contested election.
As a result, while some might have expected some heightened interest in the Georgia Supreme Court positions, especially given the controversy arising out of several of the Supreme Court’s decisions over the last couple of years, it did not happen. Instead, when qualifying ended, each of the incumbent justices qualified for reelection without any opposition.
This was a pattern that repeated itself through most of the 2012 judicial elections. The same pattern occurred for the Court of Appeals judgeships. There were six judges on the Court of Appeals facing reelection in 2012. They included Judges Keith Blackwell, Michael Boggs, Stephen Dillard, John Ellington, Yvette Miller, and Herbert Phipps. No one qualified against any of them.
Notably, the lack of opposition was not a political party kind of thing, where only judges from one party or the other were up for reelection. Instead, for the Georgia Supreme Court, two were Democratic appointed justices (Hunstein and Thompson) and one Republican appointed justice (Melton). On the Court of Appeals, it was an even split, with three Republican appointees – two by Governor Sonny Perdue, and one by Governor Nathan Deal – and three Democratic appointees – Ellington, Miller, and Phipps. None garnered opposition.
So, regardless of the reasons, Georgia’s appellate judicial elections were decided on qualifying day this year. With so much weight on incumbency in the judicial election landscape, Governor Deal’s appointments to the appellate courts when vacancies occur carry with them an even greater weight.
This does not mean there was no interest in judicial elections in 2012. Well over 100 Superior Court judgeships will also be on the ballot. Like the appellate court, an overwhelming number of incumbent judges qualified for reelection without opposition, but there were a few notable exceptions.
Five judges face opposition: Judge Roger Bradley (Ellijay) in the Appalachian Judicial Circuit; Judge Carlisle Overstreet in Augusta; Judge George Nunn in Houston County; Judge Thomas Hodges in the Northern Circuit and Judge Gail Flake in the Stone Mountain Circuit.
Three of Governor Deal’s appointees face opposition: Judge Todd Markle (Atlanta), Governor Deal’s appointee to the Superior Court of Fulton County; Judge Art Smith (Columbus), Governor Deal’s appointee to the Superior Court of the Chattahoochee Circuit, and Judge Jon Helton (Dublin), Governor Deal’s appointee to the Superior Court of the Dublin Circuit.
There are some open seats in Superior Courts in Blue Ridge, Cobb (2 seats), Coweta, Gwinnett, and Rockdale. One thing that is clear from the open seats is that there is no shortage of lawyers willing to run for judge. For example, in Gwinnet County, 5 lawyers qualified for one open judgeship.
Of course, in addition to the Appellate Courts and Superior Courts, there is a whole host of other courts – from state courts to magistrate courts to probate courts. Yet, consistently, the pattern was the same. With a few exceptions, incumbents qualified without opposition which means – again – that each of these elections was decided on qualifying day rather than on election day.