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Judicial election results spawn talk of reform by GOP

During the last two election cycles, Republicans have poured money into conservative candidates for the Georgia Supreme Court in a bid to "balance" a court populated by justices appointed by Democratic governors.

It hasn't worked. In 2004, Justice Leah Sears rolled up 62 percent of the vote in defeating challenger Grant Brantley.

Then last month, Justice Carol Hunstein garnered 63 percent in her win over Mike Wiggins.

Although judicial elections in Georgia are officially non-partisan, those losses were frustrating for Republicans, particularly in the context of GOP victories in the other two branches of state government.

Four years ago, Sonny Perdue was elected Georgia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Within a week, his monumental victory had led to a flurry of party switching that tipped the state Senate into the GOP column.

Republicans completed their takeover of the General Assembly by capturing a majority in the House in 2004.

That leaves only the courts in the hands of office holders who, according to GOP leaders, are out of step with the conservative tide that has swept over Georgia during this decade.

Not being able to rectify that situation at the ballot box, legislative Republican leaders are looking into ways of reforming judicial elections in Georgia.

Among the possibilities that have emerged is giving in to the reality of what judicial elections have become by allowing candidates to run with party labels. In a state that has become solidly Republican, GOP Supreme Court candidates presumably would have the edge.

Another idea that's making the rounds is adding two more justices to the seven-member court.

That strategy harkens back to the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, tried and failed to "pack" the U.S. Supreme Court with additional justices. Roosevelt was upset with court decisions that were unfavorable to some of his New Deal policies enacted by Congress and was looking to create vacancies he could fill with justices who would give him a better shake.

"Our Constitution allows for up to nine judges," said Eric Dial, president of the Safety & Prosperity Coalition, a group of business leaders that was a major financial backer of Wiggins' campaign. "This is not a new idea. Our court has increased in size as our population has grown."

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, was receptive to the idea of partisan judicial elections when he addressed the press last month shortly after Perdue won a second term as governor.

"I have no problem with putting a party label on judges," Johnson said.

But neither idea is going over well with either Democrats or good government groups.

Although Democrats are in the minority in both the House and Senate, what they think about partisan judicial elections matters. Because such a change would require a constitutional amendment, Democrats have enough votes to deny it the two-thirds majority it would need to pass.

Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause-Georgia, said switching to partisan elections would put more special interest money into judicial races than even the last two Supreme Court elections, which were the most expensive in the state's history.

"That's the wrong direction to go to address something we all believe should be looked at," he said.

One reason that's been given for expanding the court is to ease the justices' workload.

But House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, isn't buying it. He dismissed the proposal as a blatant attempt to sway future decisions.

"The only reason to do this is to pack the court ... to manipulate rulings," Porter said. "The people want an impartial judiciary."

Groups including Common Cause are pushing a third reform that they argue would pull the plug on special interest influence in judicial elections.

A bill to be introduced during this winter's session would provide public financing of judicial races, either through a checkoff on the state income tax form or possibly through a fee on lawyers.

Previous efforts to have taxpayers foot the bill for elections have been dismissed as "welfare for politicians" and haven't taken hold in many states.

"I think public financing is a non-starter," Dial said. "It's a liberal idea, the kind of thing you see up in New England."

But Bozarth said he believes voters are willing to hold judicial candidates to higher standards than those running for other offices because judges aren't supposed to be politicians and shouldn't be subject to the same influences.

"Would you rather have a modest public expenditure that wouldn't really put much cost on taxpayers ... or a lot of special interest money electing these folks?" he said.

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.

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