The governor’s Judicial Nominating Commission has recommended two African-American prosecutors among a short list of five nominees for two openings on the Superior Court bench in Columbus.
Race became a prominent issue in the JNC’s selection process after Chattahoochee Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge John Allen wrote a memo in September to Gov. Nathan Deal and the JNC, urging them to consider diversity in filling his seat.
Allen was the sole African-American on the circuit’s bench and his retirement last week created one of the two vacancies. The other was created by legislation approved by the state General Assembly at the request of the Judicial Council of Georgia.
“I am certain you are aware of the ‘face of justice’ created by your appointments to the bench,” Allen wrote. “Upon my retirement, the composition of the Superior Court Bench of the Chattahoochee Circuit will be five white males. If the pattern of the two most recent appointments is continued in the two impending vacancies, the superior court bench of this circuit will be composed of seven white males.”
Allen was referring to the 2010 appointment of William Rumer by Gov. Sonny Perdue and the 2011 appointment of Art Smith by Deal. Both are white.
In response to Allen, the JNC extended its nomination deadline by two weeks in hopes of attracting more minority nominees. The JNC last week interviewed 22 applicants on Monday, of which at least eight were African-American.
The short list of nominees submitted to the governor include:
• Muscogee County State Court Judge Maureen Gottfried, who has been on the bench since 1996. She earned her law degree from the University of Georgia and was admitted to the State Bar of Georgia in 1986.
• J. Ronald Mullins Jr., a partner at Page, Scrantom, Sprouse, Tucker & Ford whose practice includes insurance defense, government law and adoptions. He earned his law degree from the University of Georgia and was admitted to the bar in 1976.
• Ben Richardson, solicitor-general for Columbus and Muscogee County, who was named solicitor-general of the year in 2008 by the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia. He earned his law degree from the University of Georgia and was admitted to the bar in 1992.
• Chattahoochee Circuit District Attorney Julia Slater. She earned her law degree from Washington & Lee University and was admitted to the bar in 1993.
• Alonza Whitaker, chief assistant district attorney for the Chattahoochee Circuit. He earned his law degree from Creighton University and was admitted to the bar in 1993.
Richardson and Whitaker are African-American. The other nominees are white.
The JNC also recommended to Deal a short list of three lawyers for one judicial vacancy on the Oconee Circuit Superior Court. They are:
• Steven Harrison, a circuit public defender in Eastman. He earned his law degree from Mercer University and was admitted to the bar in 1982.
• C. Michael Johnson, a solo general practitioner in Eastman and special assistant attorney general. He earned his law degree from Mercer University and was admitted to the bar in 1986.
• Howard Kaufold Jr., a partner at Kaufold & Everett in Vidalia. He earned his law degree from Mercer University and was admitted to the bar in 1978.
JNC co-chairman J. Randolph Evans, a partner at McKenna, Long & Aldridge, said the Chattahoochee Circuit drew a strong applicant pool with racial and gender diversity.
However, no minorities and only one woman applied for the Oconee judgeship.
“Oconee sort of proved a point that I’ve made before: We can only appoint from those who apply,” Evans said.