Originally created 05/24/05

Perdue looks at partisan judicial races



ATLANTA - Gov. Sonny Perdue said Monday that he could see himself supporting a constitutional amendment to turn future Georgia judicial elections into partisan contests because of the increasingly political nature of such races.

"I don't support that at this time," Mr. Perdue, a Republican, said in an interview with Morris News Service.

"But if we are not able to take partisanship out of races ... I think we should open it up."

Judicial races are currently nonpartisan affairs in Georgia, giving candidates the freedom to run for office without having to identify themselves as a Democrat, a Republican or member of any other party.

Still, politics - and partisan money - often find a way to enter into such races.

The governor said Monday he was particularly bothered by the partisan overtones in last year's election for a spot on the seven-member state Supreme Court.

Incumbent Leah Ward Sears - the first black female justice on the court - beat out challenger Grant Brantley, a former Cobb County Superior Court Judge.

Though the contest was officially nonpartisan, Justice Sears was heavily funded by some of the state's top Democrats, while Mr. Brantley was backed by many in the GOP's leadership, including a former Perdue staff member.

Justice Sears will become the court's chief justice this summer after the retirement of Justice Norman S. Fletcher.

Rep. Bill Hembree, R-Douglasville, introduced a constitutional amendment earlier this year that would require partisan judicial elections for positions on the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, along with all state courts and superior courts.

Mr. Perdue said for now he is holding off on throwing his weight behind that resolution

He said he hopes the 2004 battle between Justice Sears and Mr. Brantley will promote less-partisan races in the future.

"If the judiciary wants to keep their races as non-partisan, I think their candidates ought to act in a nonpartisan fashion," Mr. Perdue said.

Still, others said Monday they would fight to keep judges from having to declare a political ideology.

"Partisan judicial elections is a terrible idea," said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, a former chair of the House Judiciary Committee. "The Republicans want to step backward in terms of an independent judiciary."

University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock noted that it would be difficult for the GOP to pass the resolution without the support of several dozen conservative Democrats.

Such a showing of bipartisan unity would be highly unexpected in 2006, when both Republicans and Democrats will be fighting for control of the legislature and the governor's mansion, Dr. Bullock said.

"My guess is that right now most of our jurists are Democrats," Dr. Bullock said. "Therefore, their party might see nothing to gain from moving to partisan elections."

Reach reporter Brian Basinger at (404) 681-1701 or brian.basinger@morris.com.