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Former Georgia Supreme Court candidate George M. Weaver says vindication is not enough. He wants to stamp out any possibility that the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission will interject itself into another political campaign. The JQC interjected itself into Weaver’s own campaign in 1998, when he unsuccessfully challenged state Supreme Court Justice Leah J. Sears. The JQC publicly reprimanded him for campaign ads it said were false and misleading. He sued, saying the JQC violated his right to free speech and may have cost him the election. Now he’s appealing the Aug. 25 federal court ruling in that case. The court’s ruling limits, but does not eliminate, the JQC’s authority to control the style and civility of political debate during a judicial campaign. He is also considering whether to revive demands for monetary damages and a special election pitting him against Sears, which U.S. District Judge Willis B. Hunt Jr. dismissed last year. “I think what’s needed here is complete reform of this process,” Weaver says about his decision to appeal. “I don’t believe that what’s happened so far goes far enough. … As a matter of conscience, somebody needs to carry this thing to the level necessary for a full and complete reform to occur.” Weaver’s decision to appeal comes at a time when Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes has called the JQC “high-handed” and publicly chastised the commission for its efforts to shield judges from “rough and tumble politics.” In 1996, Barnes, then a Marietta attorney, offered free legal representation to Mark Merritt, a candidate for the Georgia Court of Appeals whom the JQC had publicly rebuked for circulating a campaign ad that it said fell “far short of the dignity appropriate to any judicial office.” Merritt lost the election. Hunt’s order declares unconstitutional a provision of the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct that bars judicial candidates from disseminating public statements that are false, that contain a factual or legal misrepresentation or that could be interpreted as deceptive. Hunt determined the provision — Canon 7 — “chills debate by requiring candidates to attempt to determine whether a reasonable person would view their speech as fraudulent, misleading or somehow deceptive. It therefore has a great likelihood of forcing candidates to remain silent on questionable matters instead of risking adverse action.” Hunt’s order, however, affirms that Rule 27, a separate provision that permits the JQC publicly to reprimand judicial candidates who make false or misleading statements, does not muzzle free speech. Weaver v. Bonner, No. 1:98-CV-2011. Weaver fears that as long as the JQC retains its authority to step into the middle of a political campaign and issue public pronouncements about the integrity of an ongoing political debate, it will continue to do so. “What could easily happen under the order issued by Judge Hunt is that the JQC could make some changes that could be called minor and keep on doing the same thing they have been doing,” Weaver says. “I don’t think it sufficiently protects the constitutional rights of the candidates and the voters.” The JQC also is appealing Hunt’s ruling and is demanding that Weaver reimburse the agency for an estimated $45,000 of more than $300,000 spent in litigation. JQC executive director Cheryl F. Custer declined to comment on the appeal or the pending motion for legal fees, referring all questions to the JQC’s attorney, James C. Rawls, a partner with the Atlanta office of Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy. Rawls did not return telephone calls Thursday and was out of town Friday and unavailable for comment. But in the fee brief, Rawls said, “It is plain that the claims against the JQC defendants in their individual capacities were made due to a desire for publicity and for political motives.” Moreover, Rawls wrote, Weaver ” ‘attacked the umpires’ in this case with spite and mean-spiritedness, without justification and without any evidence. The claim for monetary damages against the JQC defendants personally was baseless, legally and factually, and a fee award is warranted.” Appeals briefs have not yet been submitted. Hunt’s ruling stems from the suit Weaver filed against the JQC’s Special Committee on Judicial Election Campaign Intervention on July 16, 1998, a day after it publicly branded a Weaver television campaign advertisement as false. The advertisement claimed Sears stood for same-sex marriage, “questioned the constitutionality of laws prohibiting sex with children under 14,” and called the electric chair “silly.” The committee delivered its rebuke in a written statement distributed to a dozen news media outlets six days before the 1998 July primary. Sears won the election. After privately issuing Weaver a cease-and-desist order regarding printed campaign materials that the JQC committee believed to be, at best, misleading, committee members went public with their dissatisfaction with the tone of Weaver’s political ad campaign. They asserted that Weaver’s ad was false in that Sears had taken no position on same sex marriages in State v. Christenen, 266 Ga. 474 (1996) and Van Dyck v. Van Dyck 262 Ga. 720,722 (1993) (concurring opinion), both cases Weaver cited in his ad. In addition, the committee noted that, regardless of whether Sears had once described the electric chair as silly, she had voted to uphold both Georgia’s death penalty and the electric chair as the state’s sole means of execution. Weaver asserts that he was accurately characterizing Sears’ position in those opinions. Weaver says he wants the appeals court to declare unconstitutional the JQC’s Rule 27, which Hunt’s ruling left intact. Rule 27 authorizes the JQC to issue cease-and-desist orders to judicial candidates whose campaigns have allegedly violated the Judicial Canon of Ethics and to notify the media of those violations. Weaver’s attorney, David J. Myers of Lord, Bissell & Brook, says, “To the extent Rule 27 authorized the JQC to make a public statement about anybody in an election, then, yes, at a minimum the procedures need to be beefed up substantially to prevent mistaken, erroneous, if not malicious public statements by the JQC when they are either wrong or motivated by politics.” Myers says it is unclear whether the JQC’s decision to rebuke Weaver was politically motivated. According to their own depositions excerpted in briefs filed in the case, two members of the JQC committee that publicly attacked Weaver’s advertising as false, the JQC’s attorney and his law firm had made political contributions to Sears prior to the release of the public statement assailing Weaver’s ad. “I think the whole scheme is a bad idea,” Myers says. “It makes it too hard to separate out when somebody is politically motivated and when they simply have it wrong. It’s way too easy to have it wrong.”

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