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State Supreme Court election turns partisan again

ATLANTA - Georgia Supreme Court elections appear well down on the statewide ballot.

But you wouldn't know it from the last two election cycles.

In 2004 and again this year, conservative Republicans and business interests are mounting a concerted effort to topple a sitting justice appointed by a Democratic governor, arguing that the court has become too liberal and too activist.

It didn't work two years ago when incumbent Justice Leah Sears rolled up 62 percent of the vote in defeating Grant Brantley, a Superior Court judge in Cobb County.

Now, the target is Justice Carol Hunstein, who is being challenged in the Nov. 7 election by Mike Wiggins, a former Bush administration lawyer.

Wiggins, 53, of Atlanta, said he decided to run because the state Supreme Court is growing increasingly out of touch with mainstream Georgians and beholden to plaintiff lawyers. He said the court's rulings show a willingness to legislate from the bench rather than stick with the law.

"When our courts seek to become super-legislators, we no longer live under the rule of law, but the rule of lawyers,'' he said.

Wiggins cites as examples decisions from the last few years in which Hunstein sided with the court's majority.

He said she joined the winning side in declaring electrocution of condemned criminals unconstitutional as "cruel and unusual'' punishment and in ruling that homeowners could be prohibited from planting trees without the state's permission if their properties were near a rail line.

Hunstein, 62, of Decatur, disputed Wiggins' characterization of the Georgia Supreme Court as liberal. She said the court has compiled a conservative to moderate record during the 14 years since she was appointed by former Gov. Zell Miller.

Hunstein also dismissed Wiggins' charge that the court is anti-business and favors plaintiffs in tort cases.

"All you have to do is look at the success of the business community in Georgia to see there's no problem with the judicial system'' she said.

Although the race is technically nonpartisan, both candidates have some political heavyweights in their respective corners.

Wiggins has been endorsed by Georgia's Republican congressional delegation, the National Rifle Association and the Fraternal Order of Police.

Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus also is among his key supporters.

Hunstein has the backing of the Georgia Association of Educators as well as some prominent Democrats and Republicans, including Miller, former Gov. Roy Barnes, former Attorney General Mike Bowers, a bipartisan group of district attorneys and Oscar Persons, former general counsel to the state Republican Party.

"These lawyers and state officials don't think this should be partisan,'' she said. "It should be about qualifications and experience.''

Hunstein said that's where she has a clear advantage over Wiggins, having spent 22 years as a judge, including eight as a Superior Court judge in DeKalb County prior to her elevation to the Supreme Court.

But Wiggins said his career has been excellent preparation for a seat on the high court bench.

Before and after graduating at the top of his law school class at the University of Georgia, he served as a clerk for two federal judges.

Then, after a stint in private practice, he went to work for the Bush administration in 2001, spending most of his five years there with the Justice Department.

At the agency's Civil Rights Division, Wiggins said he was involved in challenges to Michigan's race-based policies for admission to colleges and law schools and to a Pennsylvania school district's ban on Bible club meetings on school property.

"Without much change in personnel, we changed our win rate from 60 percent to almost 90 percent,'' he said.

Hunstein said she's disturbed at the trend toward partisan judicial races that is showing up in this campaign and others across the country.

She said judicial candidates shouldn't give their opinions on political issues because it implies to voters how they would rule on future cases that might come before them.

"That's not how the judicial system should work,'' she said. "As judges, we are sworn to uphold the rule of law.''

But Wiggins said judicial candidates should be free to talk politics as long as judges are elected and not appointed.

The Hunstein-Wiggins race is the only contested state Supreme Court election this year.

Three other justices, George Carley, Harold Melton and Hugh Thompson, are running unopposed.