Originally created 11/22/04

Third vote should settle Court of Appeals



ATLANTA - There really is an election Tuesday, and it does happen to be the third vote to fill an open seat on the Georgia Court of Appeals.

There's no official estimate of turnout, but the few statewide general election runoffs held in recent decades have generally attracted less than 10 percent of the electorate. For a "down ballot" race like a judgeship, political veterans informally predict turnout will be on the low end, although the race might hold more interest for lawyers.

"I think there's actually a high motivation to vote by the members of the bar," said Shannon Goessling, the executive director of the Southeastern Legal Foundation.

A printing error produced this election trifecta. Of the six candidates in the nonpartisan election in July, Debra Bernes got the most votes and Mike Sheffield was second, apparently qualifying for the runoff. But Howard Mead's first name was printed as Thomas on fewer than 500 absentee ballots in Laurens County, and the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the election must be held again.

Mr. Mead, who came in third in the first election, rose to second place out of the three remaining candidates Nov. 2, good enough for a spot in Tuesday's runoff. Ms. Bernes repeated her first-place finish but didn't get the 45 percent needed to win without a runoff.

Ms. Bernes also came out on top in an attorney survey the State Bar of Georgia conducted over the summer. Ninety percent of those who said they knew her work rated her as qualified or "well qualified" for a seat on the bench. Mr. Mead, on the other hand, ranked at the bottom of all six candidates in the race, with just 69 percent gauging him qualified or "well qualified."

Mr. Mead has never represented a client before a jury or appeals court, which might be one reason his colleagues gave him a lackluster rating. He has served as a clerk for a federal appellate judge and served two Democratic governors as an aide. Since losing his job when Gov. Roy Barnes was defeated, Mr. Mead has taught law classes to undergraduates at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.

Ms. Bernes followed a different route, including 20 years as an assistant prosecutor specializing in appeals under the first Republican district attorney in Cobb County history, and then as a defense lawyer in her own solo practice. She estimates she has handled around 400 appeals.

Mr. Mead said his experience is better because he helped draft laws and has had to weigh cases impartially while clerking for a little more than a year, adding that Ms. Bernes has only been an advocate for one side or the other in her many cases.

Ms. Bernes said her experience trumps his in any comparison.

The decision could be tough for their colleagues, said Bill Clark, a lobbyist for the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association.

"I even know of some married-couple lawyers where one is supporting Bernes and one is supporting Mead," he said.

Both candidates lent heavily to their campaigns. Ms. Bernes put in $269,000, or 52 percent of her kitty. Mr. Mead put in a whopping $2.4 million, or 89 percent of his war chest, making it the state's largest judicial campaign budget.

While the race is officially nonpartisan, some political veterans see it as a showdown between Republican Ms. Bernes and Democrat Mr. Mead.

In a general-election runoff, all registered voters can vote, even if they didn't vote in either of the earlier rounds.

Court of Appeals candidates

Debra Bernes

Residence: Marietta

Age: 49

Web site: www.bernesforcourtofappeals.com

Approval: In a State Bar of Georgia survey of attorneys familiar with her work, 90 percent rated her qualified or well-qualified, and 10 percent rated her not qualified.

Howard Mead

Residence: Atlanta

Age: 44

Web site: www.georgiansformead.com

Approval: In a State Bar of Georgia survey of attorneys familiar with his work, 69 percent rated him qualified or well-qualified, and 31 percent rated him not qualified.

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424 or walter.jones@morris.com.