Ballot for Paulding Superior Court Judge is Now Blank

Ballot for Paulding Superior Court Judge is Now Blank John Disney/Staff Gov. Nathan Deal

The daughter of a Paulding County Superior Court judge on Monday withdrew her controversial candidacy for her father’s judicial post as part of an agreement with the state judicial disciplinary agency.

Dallas attorney Elizabeth Osborne Williams said in a written statement she was leaving the race “in an effort to keep the confidence of the public in the judicial process.” She also said she intended to ask Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp to reopen candidate qualifying for the seat that her father, Judge James Osborne, holds “so that I or anyone will have additional time to qualify.”

Osborne and Williams were accused of gaming the system to discourage other candidates so that Williams could run unopposed for the seat. Osborne qualified to run for re-election on March 3, the first day of candidate qualifying; Williams qualified shortly before qualifying closed at noon on March 7. They were the only two candidates to qualify for the seat, and Osborne withdrew his candidacy the next business day, leaving his daughter uncontested in the nonpartisan race.

Kemp spokesman Jared Thomas told the Daily Report on Monday that Osborne’s seat will be filled by the newly elected governor in 2015, after Osborne’s current term expires on Dec. 31. “This is an extraordinary circumstance we have never seen before,” he said.

Thomas explained there is no legal mechanism available to reopen candidate qualifying. “It is our understanding that the judge will serve out the rest of his term. In January, it will become a vacancy,” Thomas said. “At that point, the governor can appoint someone to the bench.”

Osborne will also not be able to rescind his withdrawal as a candidate, Thomas said.

Anyone wishing to be a write-in candidate for the seat had to have published that intent in Paulding County’s legal organ by last Friday, Thomas added. “No one did it,” he said.

On Friday, Williams—an attorney with Talley, Richardson & Cable—and Osborne reached an oral agreement with the Judicial Qualifications Commission that Williams would withdraw from the race, JQC vice-chairman Lester Tate told the Daily Report on Friday.

The agreement did not preclude Williams from seeking that seat at some future date, Tate said. As part of the agreement, Osborne also told the JQC that he would not seek re-election, the JQC vice chairman added.

After Williams filed her withdrawal notice with the Secretary of State on Monday, Tate told the Daily Report: “I’m very happy that we were able to reach the agreement we did, because I firmly believe it is in the public interest.”

He said the JQC was concerned only with possible violations of the state Code of Judicial Ethics and did not delve into whether the actions of Williams or her father had violated state election laws.

“There are some things that are permitted by law that might be a violation of the canons,” he said. “Those are really two separate things.”

He added, “It is probably not in the public interest to go back and speculate whether there was a violation or multiple violations for somebody who has tried to correct the situation pretty quickly and worked with us to do that.”

Georgia State University legal ethics professor Clark Cunningham told the Daily Report on Friday that Osborne and Williams likely violated the state judicial ethics code and that the JQC has the authority both to disqualify Williams for her conduct as a candidate and to remove Osborne from his judicial post.

Cunningham, who directs the National Institute for Teaching Ethics & Professionalism, said the code mandates that judges “shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all their activities” and that “judges … shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”

“He did not intend to run but wanted to create the impression that he intended to run,” Cunningham said. “That was a dishonest thing to do. She capitalized on his dishonest act by waiting until the last minute to file qualifying papers so that she could run unopposed.”

Williams told the Daily Report last week that her father had told her weeks before qualifying opened that he intended to retire from the bench at the end of this year. She also told the Daily Report that she and her father had discussed his decision to qualify for re-election despite his retirement plans as well as his intention to withdraw once qualifying closed.

“He just wanted to give me the best opportunity to serve in the position,” she told the Daily Report.

Osborne, who has sent word to the Daily Report through a staff member that he would not comment on his actions, said in an interview with WSB-TV last week that he had done nothing inappropriate. Osborne also insisted in that interview that while he and his daughter had discussed his intended departure from the bench, nothing was set in stone.

The judge said in the televised interview that when his daughter qualified to run for his seat “that helped me make a decision that I felt like I could have confidence that the people in the circuit would be in good hands.”

In written statement sent to the Daily Report on Monday, Williams said she qualified “in good faith and complied with every law in that regard.”

“I qualified,” she said, “because I come from a family of lawyers who has long been committed to public service and I share their deep love for Paulding County.

“Any lawyer was free to qualify,” she continued. “I did not intend to bring criticism on me, my father, the judicial election process, or anyone, but I am aware that some people have expressed criticism and concern.

“Although I am now the only candidate on the ballot, in an effort to keep the confidence of the public in the judicial process, I intend to withdraw and ask the Secretary of State to reopen the period to qualify … so that I or anyone will have additional time to qualify. It is my hope and prayer that the best person for the job will be elected by the people of Paulding County.”

On Monday, William Perry, executive director of government watchdog Common Cause of Georgia, called Williams’ withdrawal “bittersweet.”

“The voters in Paulding County aren’t going to get a judge who tried to game the system in an unethical way but because of what her and her father did they are being denied a choice in the election,” he said.

Perry also said that Common Cause is talking with members of the Georgia General Assembly to see if there is still time this week to pass legislation that would reopen the qualifying period for the Paulding Superior Court post now that there are no candidates running.

Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, an attorney, last week began pushing for an amendment to allow the secretary of state to reopen the qualifying period for a political race if the incumbent withdraws or is disqualified after the qualifying period ends and there is only one other qualified candidate.

Said Perry: “Once whoever the next governor is appoints that person, it’s likely that person won’t get challenged in an election until they retire or step down. It could be years, even decades, before the voters in that circuit have the opportunity to select somebody for the position.”