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ATLANTA — The Safety & Prosperity Coalition, the independent group backing Georgia Supreme Court challenger and former Justice Department official J. Michael Wiggins, has relied on “prosperity” for all of its funding. As of Sept. 30, the group had raised $318,500, all from insurance, medical, and business groups, as well as companies interested in protecting pro-defense changes made to the state’s tort laws last year. But the coalition is focusing on “safety” in its latest ad campaign. The latest television advertisement, which the group began running last week, slams Presiding Justice Carol Hunstein for her votes in three criminal cases. The 30-second spot, which does not mention Wiggins, twice refers to “liberal Carol Hunstein,” says the justice “has made a habit of ignoring laws she doesn’t like,” and suggests that if she “wants to make laws, she should run for the Legislature instead of judge.” Jesse Rutledge, who monitors advertisements in judicial races through the group Justice at Stake, says it’s no surprise that such a group, funded by business groups, would run an advertisement focused on criminal law. “Most voters just aren’t that interested in tort-reform issues,” says Rutledge, “and the business community knows this, and they feel they can be more effective when they run advertising campaigns on more hot-button issues like criminal rulings.” Asked about the ad, SPC Chairman H. Eric Dial said criminal law issues are important to his group. “Criminal issues are important to all Georgians and the business community and all of Georgia voters,” said Dial, “and it’s been our goal from the beginning to educate Georgians on who our justices are and where they stand on important issues.” Earlier this month, SPC began running an advertisement promoting Wiggins’ experience in the Bush administration. The SPC’s activities are the subject of a complaint filed with the State Ethics Commission. The complaint, filed by Atlanta lawyer Gary Andrews and based on alleged e-mails in which Wiggins and SPC staffers communicated about the race, claims that the SPC, Wiggins, and Wiggins’ campaign broke state ethics rules against candidates and independent committees coordinating expenditures. Wiggins’ campaign has said the complaint is false. The complaint asks the commission to require the SPC to stop any advertising that’s already been paid for, but Ethics Commission Executive Secretary Rick Thompson says that it will be at least six months before his office begins investigating the complaint. In a statement issued through spokesman Linton Johnson, Hunstein’s campaign called the ad a “brutal misrepresentation of Justice Hunstein’s record” and called the SPC “a group that is collecting and spending huge sums of money, in apparent violation of Georgia law, from the insurance industry and other special interests to buy a seat on the Georgia Supreme Court.” “This group is interested in neither the truth nor the rule of law,” said the statement. “It is focused solely on taking over the judicial branch of government and will obviously say or do anything to further that effort.” Wiggins’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the ad. An analysis of Hunstein’s decisions on the court showed that in 99 criminal cases decided by a 4-3 vote, she voted with the prosecution 64 times, or 39 percent more often than did the court as a whole. Her campaign has touted endorsements by 22 of the state’s 49 district attorneys, as well as three sheriffs, while Wiggins’ campaign announced last week that 31 sheriffs, both Democrats and Republicans, were backing Wiggins. All of the SPC’s donations reported to date come from insurance groups, medical groups, or large businesses, with the American Insurance Association, the Coca-Cola Bottlers Association, DaimlerChrysler Corp., Georgia Hospital Association, and political action committees of the Medical Association of Georgia and Independent Insurance Agents of Georgia each giving $25,000 or more. Representatives of some of those groups have said that a primary reason for their support of the SPC is their desire to preserve changes to Georgia’s tort law made last year. But the president of another group that’s supporting the SPC, the American Justice Partnership, says criminal matters are important to his organization, as well. The AJP is a national group whose stated mission is to support “legal reform” of laws that permit “lawsuit abuse,” and while contribution reports filed to date do not list it as an SPC contributor, President Dan Pero says that future reports will indicate that the AJP has contributed. Pero says criminal decisions reflecting a “liberal bent” of the Georgia Supreme Court are of concern. “That often will translate into similar activist kinds of decisions with respect to business and liability issues,” says Pero.
Alyson M. Palmer is a reporter with The Daily Report , the ALM publication in which a version of this article first appeared.

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