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The Fulton County State Court judge originally assigned to hear a former state Senate candidate’s libel suit against the Georgia Democratic Party has recused herself. In her May 25 order, Judge Brenda H. Cole did not explain her reasons. The order simply notes that the case had been assigned to her, that she has removed it from her docket, and that she has ordered the clerk to assign it to another judge. Four days later, State Court Chief Judge A.L. Thompson signed an order recognizing the recusal and assigning the case to Senior Judge Charles L. Carnes. The case centers around Thomas A. Mills’ claim that the Democratic Party libeled him in a mailer it distributed to thousands of prospective voters during the 2000 race for the District 29 Senate post. The mailer, Mills says, falsely cast him as a Klansman. Mills v. Democratic Party of Georgia, No. 01VS17638E (Fult. St. filed May 3, 2001). The State Court Rules do not require judges to provide a reason for voluntary recusal. Judge Cole did not return phone calls. Mills’ lawyer, Robert J. Proctor of Proctor & Chambers, says he did not ask Cole to step down from the case, and didn’t know of any reason why she should. Proctor is a former chairman of the board of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a conservative organization that has challenged Fulton County and Atlanta’s affirmative action programs. “I think it was sua sponte,” Proctor says. “I really don’t think it makes any difference in the case.” Both Cole and Carnes have connections to the Democratic Party. Cole was a 15-year veteran of the state attorney general’s office when Gov. Zell Miller appointed her to the state court in 1998. As an assistant attorney general, she directed the regulated industries and professions division. Carnes was a Democrat during his 12 years in the General Assembly. However, he won his seat on the state court by nonpartisan election rather than appointment. President George Bush named Carnes’ daughter, U.S. District Judge Julie E. Carnes, to the federal bench in 1991. Proctor says he doesn’t consider Cole’s move odd. Cases with political overtones sometimes make judges nervous, he says. And in a state in which Democratic governors have had ample opportunity to appoint judges, Proctor says, recusals sometimes may be the only way to ensure fairness. “In a case against the Democratic Party, if judges do consider themselves to be Democrats they should recuse themselves,” he says. Georgia State University College of Law Professor L. Lynn Hogue, who also directs the Southeastern Legal Foundation, says he doubts there was any bias on Cole’s part. Any suggestion that she couldn’t have heard the case fairly, he says, “probably stretches things way beyond anything we could reasonably expect of a judge.” Allowing recusals to become too common in politically charged cases, Hogue says, would “construct a system that would be impossible to administer.” “Judges are able to put issues aside, and we trust in that process,” he says. “There’s no reason to believe they couldn’t do that.” Bondurant Mixson & Elmore associate Benjamin E. Fox, who represents the Democratic Party along with partners Jeffrey O. Bramlett and Emmet J. Bondurant, says the issue in this case was likely not any actual bias, but only the possible appearance of it. By recusing herself, he says, Cole escaped any possible allegations that her rulings even appear to favor the Democratic Party. “Judge Cole exhibited admirable judgment in recusing herself on her own,” he says. “This is very much in her discretion.” In his complaint, Mills cites a brochure the party mailed to 6,000 registered voters in District 29. The pamphlet shows a photo of an unidentified Klansman in cloak and hood under a block of text reading: “Meet Tom Mills. He sells hate for a living. … Tom Mills owns something called ‘St. Andrew’s Cross Publications.’ He peddles pictures of the guy who founded the Ku Klux Klan. … That’s Tom’s idea of a hero. Tom Mills even runs a Web site that’s a link to racist hate pages on the Web.” Mills lost the 2000 race to Democratic incumbent Daniel W. Lee, an attorney in the district, which centers on LaGrange. Mills is alleging libel, false light invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He is asking unspecified general and punitive damages, plus legal fees. In its answer, the Democratic Party noted that every statement of fact made on the brochure is true, and that all of the views are legitimate expressions of political opinion. It notes that Mills does run standrewscross.com, from which he sells limited-edition prints of his sketches of Confederate generals. Among the available prints is one of Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. The Web site, the party’s answer notes, is linked to the Yahoo portal’s “Confederate Web Ring,” which groups together 246 sites whose operators share an interest in the Confederacy. While some of the sites focus on historical re-enactment or genealogy, others display racial epithets directed at black people.

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