Originally created 10/24/06

Many voters are uninformed about state Supreme Court



ATLANTA - Electing state Supreme Court justices creates curious situations.

For one thing, most voters don't even know they get to vote on justices, according to a poll released to Morris News Service. Just 41 percent knew it among the 500 likely voters surveyed Oct. 11-13 by Washington-based The Polling Co. for the Federalist Society.

Only 3 percent could name the sole justice up for re-election this year with opposition, Carol Hunstein. Of the three running unopposed, only Harold Melton showed up on voters' radar, but barely, with a minuscule 1 percent recalling his name without prompting. George Carley and Hugh Thompson simply don't exist as far as voters are concerned.

Put another way, 85 percent of those questioned didn't know the name of a single justice or judicial candidate. Of course the survey does have a 4 percent margin of error, so it may not be so bad after all.

Yet, three out of four voters surveyed agree the court should be elected "because elections hold justices accountable for their decisions and rulings."

"They're demanding a right they didn't know they already had," according to Kellyanne Conway, the president of The Polling Company.

At the same time, voters have definite opinions about how they want their justices to consider cases: Straight by the wording of the law, without considering personal views, their own experiences or evolving public opinion.

To hammer home the point, the Federalist survey asked for reaction to three cases. One was described as a case where the court threw out a defendant's admission of guilt because officials advising him of his rights didn't do it the proper way.

A resounding 65 percent concluded the court blew it.

However, that was actually a case where the court adhered to the letter of the law even, perhaps, in the face of common sense, said law professor Neil Kinkopf of Georgia State University.

"I follow the Georgia Supreme Court, and if there's one word that couldn't possibly apply to them, that is 'activists,'" he said.

Well, that's his opinion. In the remaining days of this election, people who feel otherwise will bombard you with messages trying to convince you their way - specifically that Justice Hunstein is the worst of the activists.

What troubles many lawyers, judges and editorialists is the application of traditional campaign tactics to judicial races. It crosses the line, they say, for well-heeled special-interest groups to dump money into efforts to elect a candidate they like and defeat one they don't.

Their villain this year is the ad hoc Safety & Prosperity Coalition, founded specifically to preserve Georgia's new tort-reform law that limits the sting of lawsuits on companies and medical providers. It's taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from doctors, hospitals, insurance companies and their agents, and corporations such as DaimlerChrysler. The money is buying ads supporting Justice Hunstein's challenger, former Bush administration attorney Mike Wiggins, along with an ad accusing Justice Hunstein of being one of those unwelcome activist judges.

A criminal-defense attorney has filed a formal complaint with the State Ethics Commission alleging Mr. Wiggins and the coalition have illegally coordinated their activities. At the same time, Justice Hunstein - the darling of the State Bar of Georgia and 85 percent of its members answering a survey who said she was "well qualified" - is facing a complaint as well. She is accused of accepting contributions from 11 lawyers who then argued cases before her, or someone in their firms did, shortly after making the donations.

Bill deGolian, an Atlanta lawyer and spokesman for the Georgia Committee for Ethical Judicial Campaigns, says the legal canons don't prohibit candidates and incumbent judges from asking for or receiving donations.

"I don't see anything improper with it," he said, though he adds that public financing of elections would remove all doubt.

What the lawyers and editorial writers are worried about is that judicial candidates will begin making promises on how they'll rule. So far, no one has pointed to any promises by Mr. Wiggins or Justice Hunstein that indicate they're prejudiced about any sort of case - even though their supporters clearly have their own outlooks.

The fear is that the deepest pockets will be able to install judges who'll rule in their favor. But that's already happening, according to Eric Dial of the Safety & Prosperity Coalition. It's just that the trial lawyers who have done it for years are upset that the folks who get sued are now playing the game, too.

Federalist Society spokesman Lynn Hogue says, "Judicial selection has traditionally been a pretty clubby affair."

A more robust debate, though, should be good for the process, said Mr. Hogue, who's also a law professor at Georgia State.

Perhaps with the added attention and campaign donations more than 3 percent of the voters will be able to identify the members of the court. Then they might be informed enough to decide for themselves who would make a good judge before walking into the voting booth.

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

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