Georgia State Capitol
(Jason R. Bennitt/Daily Report)

Lawyer-legislators have shifted from gathering support from colleagues for bills to gathering support from voters to represent their districts.

Lawyers are running in 19 of the 236 legislative races this cycle, with primaries in May and general elections in November. Many are incumbents, but there are five open seats in which lawyers could add to their ranks under the Gold Dome.

In one race, a five-term representative and lawyer faces a former public defender in the Republican primary for his seat in northern Fulton and DeKalb counties. Each side is claiming the other side is fighting dirty.

In another high- profile race, a former state representative and large firm attorney is running against a Decatur zoning and land use lawyer in the Democratic primary for a seat in the Senate.

In House District 80, Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, a solo practitioner who handles bankruptcies and debtor/creditor lawsuits in state and magistrate courts, is up against Catherine Bernard, a lawyer in Brookhaven who was once an assistant public defender in the middle Georgia city of Dublin.

Jacobs, who was first elected as a Democrat in 2004, shifted to the conservative party three years later after Republicans gained control over the House. Since 2011, he has been chairman of the MARTA Oversight Committee, and he heads one of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittees. In 2012, he sponsored legislation that incorporated the city of Brookhaven. During the last session, he successfully shepherded bills through the Legislature that would require a superior court judge to resolve disputes in collective bargaining with MARTA’s transit union, eliminating arbitration. It also would allow MARTA to fine nuisance riders.

“It may seem like inside baseball but when you recognize the fact that [the new collective bargaining law] requires that 10 years of financial projects be taken into account when deciding on union demands, we really are making sure the collective bargaining process comports with the reality of MARTA’s finances,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs noted that he also has worked on several bills of interest to the legal community, namely legislation that would require the redaction of personal information, such as Social Security numbers, from civil filings. That bill, Senate Bill 386, passed the Legislature this session and is awaiting the governor’s signature. Jacobs’ bill to allow the admittance of seat belt usage into evidence in car wreck cases died this session for lack of adequate support in the House and strong opposition from trial lawyers.

Jacobs, who went to law school at the University of Georgia, opened his solo practice in 2011 after practicing at Hall, Booth, Smith & Slover and Alston & Bird.

Bernard opened her solo practice in Brookhaven last summer and handles cases as a contracted public defender. After graduating law school from the University of Virginia in 2007, she worked as an associate at Rogers & Hardin. In 2009 she left to become an assistant public defender in the Dublin Judicial Circuit.

Bernard said she decided to run for office after becoming involved in the Republican Party a few years ago. She was elected to be a delegate to the 2012 Republican National Convention and is president of North DeKalb Republican Women.

“As a public defender, I found you can only tell a family so many times, ‘I’m sorry the laws are unjust,’ before deciding you have to do something to fix them,” Bernard said. Particularly, she said, she’s keen to revising or repealing certain drug crimes.

“I know a lot of people think it’s controversial, but I think the drug war is anti-conservative and big government at its worst,” Bernard said. “It’s the government telling you what you can do with your own bodies, and it has a terrible impact on law and order. There are police exerting effort on drug crimes when you have armed robbers and rapers who need to be in prison.”

The race between the veteran lawmaker and the newcomer heated up almost as soon as the election qualifying period ended.

Jacobs’ campaign, Friends of Mike Jacobs, has created a website, www.votecatherine.org, which mirrors the URL address of Bernard’s campaign site www.votecatherine.com and accuses her of being untrustworthy. The site states that Bernard voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election and includes a seven-second video clip in which Bernard admits she didn’t vote for Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, in the 2012 election. The site also states the Bernard has been a resident of the district for less than a year.

“She’s running in the Republican Primary for State House Representative, but doesn’t vote Republican,” the site states. “And she doesn’t tell the truth.”

Bernard said she’s never lied about voting for Obama, an experience she said that led to her “political evolution” into a conservative focused on small government and civil liberties.

“I can understand why [the past voting record] might concern some Republicans, but Mike was a Democrat,” Bernard said. “And I understand wanting to bring the truth out, but it’s not something I’ve ever run away from. If you couldn’t trust me, I wouldn’t have told you.”

Bernard also disputes the claim that she has lived in the district only since 2013. She said that she and her husband bought a house in Brookhaven in 2011 when they became engaged, and she would stay there on the weekends.

“What he’s focusing on and the way he’s focusing on it is really disturbing,” Bernard said.

Jacobs said his constituents should know the full extent of his challenger’s background, including what he says is a clear lack of experience in the district.

“I am running for re-election against a person who first registered to vote in our community in August 2013. That means she wasn’t present in our community during the Brookhaven referendum. She wasn’t present in our community during the Brookhaven City Council elections or when the DeKalb County School Board was placed on probation or when it was removed by the governor,” Jacobs said. “She wasn’t present in the community when CEO Burrell Ellis was indicted. All of this is recent history.”

Jacobs also has criticized Bernard’s support for a bill introduced last session by freshman lawmaker Rep. Sam Moore, R-Ball Ground, which would have repealed loitering laws, including those that apply to sex offenders. The bill earned Moore a verbal lashing on the House floor from House leaders in February.

“The legislation was wrong from the get-go and certainly was an embarrassment for the citizens of Cherokee County,” Jacobs said. “I don’t want the same embarrassment for the constituents of Brookhaven and Sandy Springs.”

Bernard said that although she supported what Moore wanted to accomplish in principle—limiting the overreaching authority of law enforcement to demand identification—she would have drafted the legislation differently.

“Mike either doesn’t know or knows and doesn’t care that there are countless other laws that restrict sex offenders from being around children,” Bernard said. “He either hasn’t researched the law or is trying to twist it to say something it doesn’t. I expect more from a fellow member of the bar.”

Senate District 42

The vacancy created by Sen. Jason Carter’s decision to run as a Democratic challenger to incumbent Republican Gov. Nathan Deal this year has drawn two potential replacements—both Democratic lawyers, like Carter.

R. Kyle Williams, a partner at Williams Teusink, was the first to throw his hat in the ring.

“This is a district in which I’ve lived for over a decade; it’s where I’ve built a life, a home and a business,” he said. “When Jason made the decision to run for governor, it became important to me that this district continue on the same track it was on, fighting against right-wing extremism.

“One of the most frustrating things I’ve seen in the last few sessions is that we have lawmakers in the Gold Dome who don’t care what they’re passing is unconstitutional or illegal or doesn’t make sense,” Williams added, specifically referring to legislation dubbed the “Religious Freedom Act” that would have allowed business owners to deny employment or service to certain people based on deeply held religious beliefs. The legislation failed this session.

“It’s so blatantly broad and vague and disconcerting to me not only as an openly gay man but as a small business owner,” Williams said. “It would allow individual business owners under the cloak of having religious beliefs to essentially discriminate against their own employees and clients for being unwed mothers or in an interracial couple or being a member of the LGBT community.”

Elena Parent, who heads the consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch, entered the race shortly after Williams. Parent, who no longer actively practices law, was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2010 and was the only Democrat in Georgia to unseat a Republican incumbent, but she bowed out from running for re-election in 2012 after redistricting pitted her against another Democrat (and lawyer), Rep. Scott Holcomb.

Parent said she and Holcomb are close friends; both worked at Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan earlier in their careers.

“It appeared that redistricting in our case was to get rid of both of us, and we were determined that we didn’t want that to happen,” she said. “I had the opportunity to go work for Georgia Watch, where I work on state policy issues that affect all Georgians, but I’ve always had the intention of running again.”

During her leadership of Georgia Watch, the organization opposed a bill that would have scrapped the state’s medical malpractice tort system and replaced it with a worker’s compensation-like board. The bill failed in the 2013 and 2014 sessions.

Both Parent and Williams have listed better funding public education, expanding health care and bolstering public transportation as capstone issues in their campaigns. Personal attacks have been absent from the race.

“It’s the issues that should be put before the voters,” Williams said. “We will rise and fall on our own merits.”