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The chairman of the Georgia Judicial Nominating Commission says he fears that the more stringent requirements for state judges mandated by voters Tuesday may make it hard to fill vacancies in some rural areas. George “Buddy” Darden, a partner with Atlanta’s Long Aldridge & Norman and chairman of the nominating commission, says that although he voted for the amendment, he fears “it may create some problems in some of the outlying areas of the state where we have a shortage of qualified attorneys.” Darden recalls that when Treutlen County, Ga., State Court Judge John J. Ellington was appointed to the Georgia Appeals Court bench last year, the commission “could find no one qualified in Treutlen County who would accept the appointment [to Ellington's vacant state court seat]. … You have, generally speaking, a shortage of qualified attorneys who will accept judgeships in certain outlying areas.” Voters approved a Georgia state constitutional amendment Tuesday requiring new state court judges to have at least seven years experience as practicing attorneys. Previously, judges were required to have only five years experience. Voters approved the amendment 64.8 percent to 35.2 percent with 90 percent of the precincts reporting, says Kara Sinkule, a spokeswoman for Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox. As a result, Georgia state court judges now will have the same experience requirements as Georgia’s Superior Court judges. “I think it’s a good idea,” says Georgia Rep. Thomas C. Bordeaux Jr. (D-Savannah), vice chairman of the Georgia House Judiciary Committee, where committee member Rep. J. Max Davis (R-Dunwoody) originated the 1999 resolution. “I think the impact is that the judges who are seated will potentially have a little bit more seasoning, a little bit more maturity. You hope that’s the case, anyway.” Kenneth S. Canfield, president of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and a member of Gov. Roy Barnes’s Judicial Nominating Commission, says he thinks the new amendment will have little impact on the caliber of state court candidates. “I don’t think it’s going to change in any great way who is likely to put their hat in the ring for state court judgeships,” he says. “Most who put their hats in the rings for state court judgeships have practiced seven years or more.” Darden adds that the amount of experience is not the only indicator of who will make a good judge. “You have a lot of people who, after five years of practice, will become brilliant judges,” he says. “You’ve got some people, I don’t care if the member has 20 or 30 years of experience, who are not qualified.” Rep. Douglas Teper (D-DeKalb), a member of the Georgia House Judiciary Committee, says the bill was presented to the committee and then to the General Assembly because “There were some young lawyers who were running without a lot of experience. There was a persuasive argument made that a couple of more years of experience might be useful.” Neither Davis, who authored and introduced the bill, nor Georgia House Judiciary Committee Chairman James F. Martin, D-Fulton, who co-signed the bill, were available for comment Tuesday. But Teper says the resolution authorizing the amendment vote was passed long before Barnes appointed his staff member, Penny Brown Reynolds, to the Fulton County, Ga., State Court bench in August. Barnes bypassed the Judicial Nominating Commission last summer when he appointed Reynolds, who was his executive counsel. The new Fulton County State Court judge has six years of experience as a practicing attorney. Teper says Reynolds’ appointment, which occurred more than a year after the Georgia General Assembly voted for the proposed amendment, “was not a consideration at all.” Still, Decatur, Ga., attorney Keenan R.S. Nix, who also is a member of the nominating commission, says the amendment’s passage is, on balance, a good thing. “I voted for it. I thought it was very reasonable,” he says. “I think, like fine wine, lawyers become more seasoned with time.”

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