Judges gear up for ballot fights

More than a third of the state’s appellate judges quietly have been preparing for the race they hope won’t happen.

Three Georgia Supreme Court justices—Robert Benham, P. Harris Hines and Keith Blackwell—must face the voters in May if they want to keep their seats. And five Court of Appeals judges—Gary Andrews, Sara Doyle, William Ray II, Elizabeth “Lisa” Branch and Carla Wong McMillian—are expected to be on the ballot.

Interested candidates must file paperwork to run in about a month, and so far there are no signs of a challenger to any of the incumbents. All of the incumbent appellate judges up for election this year, except Andrews, raised money the latter half of last year. Andrews said last week he was getting back into the fundraising game now.

Benham’s assessment of his situation was typical of the judges facing re-election this year: “We are hoping we don’t have any opposition … but we’re preparing in case we do have opposition.” Appointed to the high court 1989 and re-elected four times, Benham had nearly $120,000 in his coffers at year’s end.

Much of the work of a statewide judicial campaign is about raising money. Several of the incumbent Court of Appeals judges had more than $50,000 on hand at the end of the year, and two of the Supreme Court justices had more than $100,000. The candidates must file updated reports with the state ethics commission this week.

Some appellate judges said last week they had additional fundraising events scheduled, and one judge said at this point she would sit tight and see if anyone announces plans to run against her.

Hines, appointed in 1995 and a victor in three high court elections, credited a single fundraiser for bringing in much of the nearly $89,000 he reported for the latter half of 2013. Sitting with nearly $127,000 in cash-on-hand as of year-end, he said he hadn’t heard of challengers to any of the appellate judges but would continue “to be out and about a lot.”

A possible argument against his re-election is that Hines will turn 75 about four years into a new six-year term, at which point he will have to retire or lose his pension, per a state law. In 1992, an incumbent on the Court of Appeals lost his seat when a challenger told voters that the incumbent wouldn’t be able to serve his full term.

If Hines is re-elected and retires just before he turns 75 to save his pension, the governor—not the voters—would pick his successor. Hines said he nonetheless felt comfortable offering himself up for another term, noting he wouldn’t be the first judge in the state to leave mid-term.

By seniority, Hines is next in line to be chief justice, but he said that wasn’t his primary motivation for running again. “Obviously, it would be nice to be chief if that works out,” he said. “I’m motivated to serve the people of Georgia, that’s my first motivation.”

Andrews, who like Benham is 67 and already has been chief of his court, acknowledged that he weighed retiring and only recently confirmed for his colleagues that he would run again. “I was always more inclined to run than not,” he said.

Several judges expected to be on the ballot, appointed to the bench in the last two years by Governor Nathan Deal, are newcomers to statewide politics.

Branch, who has never run for office, reported more than $57,000 on hand as of the end of last year. Since her appointment by Deal in 2012, Branch said, “I’ve been traveling around the state, meeting with people and listening to their thoughts about the appellate system in Georgia.” She said she intends to continue doing that even after the election.

McMillian, who successfully defended her seat on the Fayette State Court against a challenger in 2012 before being elevated to the Court of Appeals by Deal, had nearly $49,000 on hand at the end of 2013. “I’ve been overwhelmed with the amount of support that I’ve gotten across the state,” she said. “I’ve been working hard to reconnect with old friends and make new ones.”

The sort of money raised by the judges thus far probably isn’t enough to mount an effective statewide television campaign should a challenger emerge. But their efforts are enough to pay for basics such as a website and caution would-be opponents that a challenge will be expensive.

Blackwell, who had about $34,000 on hand at the end of the year, said he had heard nothing about any of the state appellate judges receiving opposition. He noted the difficulties of mounting a challenge to an appellate judge: “It’s a big state to get around, and it’s awfully hard to get around in a small amount of time, and the lesson we can learn from recent races is it’s awfully, awfully hard to unseat an incumbent.”

Blackwell noted that J. Michael Wiggins’ 2006 bid to unseat Justice Carol Hunstein, in a race in which Wiggins and Hunstein each had financial backing at the seven-figure level, “just fell flat.”

Ray, an experienced politician who has been a state legislator and superior court judge, had about $85,500 on hand at the end of the year. He said in an email that he hadn’t heard of any challengers to him or his colleagues either. “Yet,” he said, “I understand that things can change quickly and that you have to be prepared.”

Perhaps further lessening the likelihood of a challenge is a compressed election calendar. The Legislature in 2011 reset the schedule for judicial elections so that they now are held at primary time rather than in November. This year Election Day will be on May 20, with any runoff on July 22. A federal judge last year moved up the primary for federal elections in Georgia from July to May to resolve a Justice Department suit that claimed Georgia’s schedule wasn’t allowing members of the military and others living overseas enough time to complete absentee ballots in runoff elections. When it came back in session this year, the state Legislature aligned state and federal primaries to spare counties additional costs.

Doyle, who secured her seat in 2008 by winning a seven-person race for an open position and had nearly $56,000 on hand at the end of last year, said in an email she didn’t think the changed schedule will affect the emergence of challengers. “I think it has been pretty widely known for some time that the legislature was going to align the federal and state election dates,” she said.