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ATLANTA � Posing 37 questions to state Supreme Court candidates about topics ranging from abortion to tax policy, the Christian Coalition of Georgia has reignited the debate over how far judicial candidates should go in talking about disputed legal topics. The group has asked Presiding Justice Carol Hunstein and the lawyer seeking to unseat her, former Department of Homeland Security counsel J. Michael Wiggins, to say whether they agree or disagree with statements such as “The Georgia Constitution does not recognize a right to abortion.” Sadie Fields, who chairs the state Christian Coalition, said the questionnaire is the only way for her group to do the necessary research so it can advise those who turn to it for information. “Over the years I can’t tell you how many calls I have fielded at election time about judges,” she said. But Atlanta lawyer William deGolian, co-chair of a private lawyer-led group called the Georgia Committee for Ethical Judicial Campaigns, said that most of the questions are inappropriate because they effectively ask candidates to say how they would rule on cases that might come before them. “To have candidates taking public positions like that � they’re free to do it, but what does it say about their fitness for office?” said deGolian. The Supreme Court of Georgia’s most recently retired justice, former Chief Justice Norman Fletcher, said he would be inclined to refuse to answer the questions posed by the survey if he were running again. He said that most of the survey items are issues that might come before the court � and others are irrelevant to the race, misleading or designed to “invoke prejudice against the candidate by one group or another.” “It’s a fine line between announcing your views on a certain legal or political issue and whether you would rule that way on a case that would come before you,” said Fletcher. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, 536 U.S. 765, held that the First Amendment allows judicial candidates to “announce his or her views on disputed legal or political issues.” Fletcher noted that White is not “authorizing or approving judges declaring how they would rule if a case comes before them.” Mark Cohen, the treasurer of Hunstein’s campaign, said she had not decided whether to respond to the survey. Wiggins could not be reached but said earlier this month that he would consider candidate questionnaires on a question-by-question basis and would decline to comment on any legal issue that might come before the court. The Christian group sent out a survey to judicial candidates in 2004, asking candidates to consider whether they agreed with the majority or dissenting opinions of particular U.S. Supreme Court decisions on five topics � abortion, homosexuality, prayer at public school graduation ceremonies, parental choice in education and equal access for theology majors to a state-funded college scholarship program. Then-Presiding Justice Leah Ward Sears declined to complete the Christian Coalition’s 2004 survey, saying, among other things, her views were irrelevant since she was bound to uphold all of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions cited. Her unsuccessful challenger, G. Grant Brantley, completed the questionnaire. This year’s survey is more extensive. One statement put to the candidates says, “Leaving aside entirely the relevant U.S. Supreme Court and/or Georgia Supreme Court precedent about the legal status of an unborn child, I as an individual believe that an unborn child is a fellow human being, imbued with a soul by its Creator.” According to Fields, the new format for the questionnaire was developed because the 2004 version was too difficult for the average voter to understand, containing “too much legalese.” Fields noted that the survey had been vetted by James Bopp Jr., an Indiana attorney who made the winning argument in the White case, as well as her group’s counsel at McKenna Long & Aldridge, J. Randolph Evans and Stefan Passantino. Bopp said the survey, which he said the Christian Coalition of Georgia adapted from one that he drafted for the Christian Coalition of Alabama, asks candidates to do nothing more than what is allowed under the White decision. Judges should follow the law regardless of their personal views, said Bopp, but in instances where judges are “making law � legitimately,” such as in developing the state’s common law, their personal views matter. He said that judicial canons forbidding judicial candidates from committing themselves on matters likely to come before them have been struck down in at least four states. He added that the Georgia version is narrower than the American Bar Association’s model canon. Canon 7B(1)(b) of the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits judges or judicial candidates from making statements that “commit the candidate with respect to issues likely to come before the court.” Commentary on the canon cites the White decision and says that judges and judicial candidates are not prohibited from “stating [their] personal views on disputed issues.” But it encourages them to “emphasize in any public statement their duty to uphold the law regardless of their personal views.” Fields said the survey responses will not be used to decide on an endorsement but will be incorporated into the group’s voter guide. She said that she anticipates mailing the guide to nearly 300,000 households and distributing another 500,000 copies through churches and that the guide will be available on her group’s Web site. Alyson Palmer is a reporter with Fulton County Daily Report, a Recorder affiliate based in Atlanta.

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