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Before she saw his latest TV commercials, Leeza R. Cherniak planned to vote for Howard N. Mead II in the race for a seat on the Georgia Court of Appeals. But the ads changed her mind, prompting her to band together with 75 defense lawyers to file an ethics complaint against Mead. A criminal defense lawyer for 17 years, Cherniak said she felt uncomfortable supporting former prosecutor Debra H. Bernes, who spent 20 years as an appellate specialist in the Cobb County district attorney’s office before going into private practice. The other candidate, Michael M. Sheffield, served nine years as a prosecutor and 15 years as a public defender before opening his own practice. Cherniak said she couldn’t support Sheffield because he had aligned himself with the Christian Coalition. Cherniak liked that Mead was backed by his ex-boss, former Gov. Roy E. Barnes, whom she had supported. Mead has the “intellectual background” Cherniak said she wants in a judge. But as Mead’s $1 million ad blitz blanketed the airwaves, Cherniak said, “I became angrier and angrier and angrier.” Two commercials tout Mead’s work for governors to fight crime and compare his experience with that of Bernes and Sheffield. One ad describes Mead’s opponents as having left their jobs as prosecutors to become “high-priced criminal defense lawyers and work for the kind of people they once sent to jail.” Another ad claims that Bernes and Sheffield have been “working to keep drunk drivers, drug dealers and child molesters out of jail.” Cherniak became so angry that she found 75 members of the criminal defense bar to back a complaint to the Georgia Committee for Ethical Judicial Campaigns. Led by former American Bar Association President R. William Ide III, the private group established itself last spring to monitor judicial campaigns in the wake of federal court decisions that said constitutional free speech guarantees trumped government efforts to protect the dignity of Georgia judicial campaigns. The group has no authority to penalize candidates whom it deems unethical, other than to admonish them publicly. Cherniak told the group Mead’s ads “grossly mislead the public about the nature of his opponents’ experience.” She complained as well about the ads’ tone, saying their implication was “that criminal defense attorneys are ‘bad’ and not qualified to serve on the bench.” ADS CALLED ‘MISLEADING’ The Ide committee late Wednesday issued a statement condemning Mead’s ads, calling the impression they paint of Bernes’ and Sheffield’s careers “misleading and inaccurate.” Ide said the decision was based on a unanimous vote of the group’s executive committee, which includes himself; attorneys David Balser, C. Wilson DuBose, A. James Elliott, Cary Ichter, Christopher J. McFadden and Norman L. Underwood; former COA Judge Dorothy T. Beasley; Ruth Knox, president of Wesleyan College in Macon; Martha Ezzard, a former member of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial board; and Carol Brantley, a political fund-raiser. The committee noted that both Bernes and Sheffield “spent long years as public prosecutors.” “It is regrettable for a judicial candidate to invoke the free speech protections of our Constitution to justify the use of words in a way intended to mislead voters,” the report added. The committee rapped Mead for airing ads that “inappropriately imply that [Bernes' and Sheffield's] experience as criminal defense attorneys renders them unfit or unsuitable for the bench or reflects on the ‘type of judge’ they might be.” BARNES DEFENDS MEAD Asked for a comment, Mead made a brief statement before referring the call to former Gov. Barnes, who represented him in dealing with the Ide committee. Mead said, “The idea that lawyers are not responsible for their actions, what they do with their training and whom they choose to help, is not only ludicrous, it’s reprehensible.” Barnes, a former prosecutor who as governor urged lawyers to donate their time to represent indigent defendants, did not return a call by press time. In a letter to the committee, Barnes praised Mead for not taking positions on issues that could come before the court — as Mead and others argued Sheffield did in a Christian Coalition questionnaire. The date on Barnes’ letter is Oct. 23, the day after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Mead was airing ads saying Bernes and Sheffield worked for “drunk drivers, drug dealers and child molesters.” But Barnes wrote that Mead “has shown great restraint in not listing Ms. Bernes and Mr. Sheffield’s clients and the crimes they have committed.” “He has limited his arguments to a contrast between his career choices and those of his opponents,” Barnes added. “That is fair, it is accurate, and it is appropriate in a judicial race.” Bernes did not return a call by press time. Sheffield said, “Lawyers should be outraged” by Mead’s ads. Cherniak is one lawyer who was, but she thinks Mead will win the election because he has vastly outspent Bernes and Sheffield. Cherniak said she recently donated $50 to Bernes. If Mead takes the bench, she added, “I think I’ll never be able to have a case in front of him.” Staff reporter Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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