Georgia judge races could see fireworks

ATLANTA — The presidential race isn't the only one gearing up for next year.

Judicial races will be hotly contested here, especially with an open Supreme Court seat and three incumbent justices having to defend striking down the caps on medical malpractice lawsuits and the charter-school law for one of them.

That means a majority of the court will face voters, and in a single election the direction of the court could be completely altered, making it a high-stakes affair. Staggered, six-year terms usually only put one or two justices on the ballot at a time.

With just a pair of Public Service Commission races as the only statewide partisan elections, the judges can expect expensive re-elections. Indeed, former Macon mayor and long-time president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce George Israel has struck out on a new career building an organization to campaign against the justices believed to be anti-business in their decisions.

Other states have seen upsets on their highest court in recent years fueled by business interests. Similar efforts haven't succeeded in Georgia.

Justices Leah Sears and Carol Hunstein beat back challenges by pro-business candidates in contests that also took on partisan tones when Democrats supported the incumbents and Republicans the upstarts.

Judicial elections are now officially nonpartisan in Georgia even if the parties may back one candidate or another. The new date of the elections puts a twist on that concept because they now will be held during the summer primary.

Republican and Democratic ballots will each carry the names of the judicial candidates, and those voters wishing to remain independents can request a nonpartisan judicial ballot. But few independents are likely to show up just to vote on some judges.

Democrats may not turn out in large numbers, either, except in districts with heated primaries.

Since it will be the first primary under the maps coming from this year's redistricting, there will be more contested primaries than usual as the new districts create opportunities for ambitious politicians. But veteran observers predict those opportunities will be fewer than after the last three redistricting cycles, and they're more likely to be in Republican strongholds such as the new congressional district north of Atlanta.

The reason given for moving the judicial elections from the November general election is so that any runoffs will be held in conjunction with the more common primary runoffs. General election runoffs are rare and expensive.

Despite the public explanation, the date change could benefit conservative judicial candidates.

Of the four justices whose terms end in 2012, Justice George Carley has announced his retirement. He'll turn 75, the effective retirement age, early in the next term if re-elected. Carley is one of the most conservative justices on the statewide bench.

Open seats are the best opportunity for new faces to reach the bench, and the election of someone less conservative than Carley would change the balance of the court if the others are re-elected.

The three seeking re-election are Justice Harold Melton, another staunch conservative who joined Carley and Justice David Nahmias in dissenting on the charter-school-funding case; Justice Hugh Thompson, the court's swing vote; and Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, one of the two moderates on the court and author of the opinion striking down the charter-school-funding law.

Thompson turns 75 half a year shy of completing the next six-year term, suggesting he'll retire early and allow the governor at the time to pick his successor.

While judicial upsets are extremely rare, especially on the appellate level, a judge was ousted in the early 1990s over arguments he would retire mid-term. That suggests age will be a factor in his race even though he appears healthy, vigorous and engaged during court.

Whatever the arguments employed in next year's judicial races, the time for gearing up is coming. Challengers will soon have to notify partners, clear their caseload, start raising money, hire aides and begin personal appearances.

The first step is recruiting challengers, and you can bet that's already going on.

When the pieces are in place next spring, the campaigns promise to bring plenty of fireworks. And the consequences will have just as much bang.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for the Times-Union and has been covering state politics since 1998.

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