The only challenge to a sitting DeKalb County Superior Court jurist has turned heated as Chief Judge Courtney Johnson faces harsh criticism from challenger Genet Hopewell.
Johnson has faced attacks over her handling of the trial of former DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, and for a widely-publicized incident in which Johnson is accused of denying an attorney a bathroom break until it was too late. Johnson has denied that accusation.
With the campaign nearly over, the Daily Report caught up with each candidate for an interview on how the race is playing out.
Courtney Johnson Age: 43 Law school: Emory University School of Law Website: judgecourtneyjohnson.com
Johnson is a DeKalb County native who got her undergraduate degree at Georgetown University. As a law student at Emory, Johnson began working with the DeKalb Solicitor’s Office as a domestic violence advocate and was hired on as an assistant solicitor after graduating in 2000.
In 2004, she moved over to the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office, where she was a senior assistant DA until Gov. Nathan Deal appointed her to DeKalb bench in 2010. As the incumbent, Johnson said she has had to balance campaigning with overseeing the superior court.
“I’m kind of in and out,” she said. “I was on the bench last week, then off this week, then I’ve got a trial scheduled for next week. Still got to do the job.”
Her April 6 financial report said Johnson had raised $90,026 in contributions.
“I actually stopped raising money about a month ago, but I’m still receiving donations,” she said. “Folks are starting to see that our race is heating up, and that’s inspiring them to give.”
Noting that judicial races often draw little attention, Johnson said she’s been heartened by the public awareness of this year’s campaign.
“I think having the governor’s race on the ballot has helped get the down-ballot races get more attention,” she said.
Even so, explaining the judiciary’s role is something Johnson still has to do while campaigning.
“A lot of people still don’t know a lot about what we do, and my job has been to educate them about that, about the difference between civil and criminal law and how the court works,” Johnson said.
Johnson has campaigned on her experience and the fact that her fellow judges elected her chief judge in 2016, to counter what she decries as a relentlessly negative campaign by her opponent.
Former DeKalb DA Robert James tried Ellis twice before getting a guilty verdict on attempted extortion and perjury charges, and Johnson sentenced him to 18 months in prison in 2015.
Ellis served eight months before the Georgia Supreme Court overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial after finding his attorneys were barred from eliciting testimony from county contractors not listed in the indictment.
Hopewell has accused Johnson of mishandling the trial and leaving the county on the hook for $1.1 million in legal fees and interest it reimbursed Ellis after current DA Sherry Boston declined to retry him.
Johnson said the criticism is misplaced and unfair, noting that appellate courts routinely reverse lower courts and order new trials.
“I think it’s unfortunate that she’s chosen to focus on that one particular case,” said Johnson. “DeKalb judges handle about 1,000 cases [a] year, so I’ve heard about 8,000 cases. I don’t think it’s fair to focus on one case and say my 17 years of legal experience doesn’t count.”
Hopewell also has used flyers and social media to push reports of a September incident where a DeKalb Conflict Defender attorney reportedly tried to get Johnson’s attention during a trial, eventually holding up a sign saying “bathroom” that Johnson would later say she never saw.
“As I’ve said before, the reporting on that incident was not correct,” Johnson said. “I would never deny anyone a break for any reason. The [Judicial Qualifications Commission] investigated that, I cooperated with the JQC, and the investigation was closed with no further action.”
Johnson said she is convinced voters will look at her overall record and decide to keep her on the court.
“I think that this is a race that should be considered carefully by the voters,” she said. “It takes someone qualified and who can do the job, and I hope they reelect me.”
Genet Hopewell Age: 60 Law school: Catholic University of America Website: electgenetjudge.com
Genet Hopewell is an Atlanta native who grew up in the Edgewood neighborhood. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Notre Dame University and her law degree at the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University of America in 1983.
Hopewell clerked for Fulton County Superior Court Judge William Daniel, now deceased, and the following year signed on with the newly established DeKalb County Attorney’s Office.
Hopewell was an associate at Arrington & Hollowell, the firm founded by civil rights attorney Donald Lee Hollowell and now-retired Fulton Superior Court Judge Marvin Arrington, before launching her own practice.
Hopewell has served on the now-dissolved DeKalb Recorder’s Court, Magistrate Court and Juvenile Court and is a partner at Decatur’s Johnson Hopewell Coleman.
Hopewell is divorced with no children.
Her April 5 campaign finance report shows Hopewell has raised $28,232.
Hopewell said the people she’s talked to while campaigning have a general idea about the superior court, “but they’re concerned about procedures, the incarceration of young black males, and they want to know about moving backlogged cases.”
She said much of what she hears concerns complaints about Johnson, whom she faults on a number of issues.
“People have been calling my office to complain,” she said. “They talk to me about feeling like the judge is not listening to their case, and is obvious about expressing her bias, turning her head like ‘I can’t hear you.’”
Hopewell is unapologetic about her attacks on Johnson, including her emphasis on the Ellis trial and the “bathroom break incident.”
“It’s getting a lot of traction because, in judicial races, people don’t know the judges unless they’ve done something good or something bad,” Hopewell said.
“This race involves people’s everyday lives, whether they’re dealing with a bad marriage or a business dispute,” she said. “They’re concerned about how they’re treated in the courtroom, that they didn’t get a fair trial. It’s resonating a lot.”
On the state Supreme Court’s reversal of Ellis’ verdict, Hopewell said the issue is not the cost to the county but Johnson’s conduct as a judge.
“We hear about these things in high-profile cases,” she said. “What bothers me is what happens in all those cases where people don’t have the resources to challenge their treatment. I think the nature of this reversal was a travesty.”
Hopewell said Johnson has accused her of “spreading lies and running a smear campaign.”
“I challenge her to point to one thing I’ve said that isn’t true,” she said.
“I’ve had a lot of people volunteering for my campaign, and l feel very good about what I’m doing,” Hopewell said. “I fully anticipate that I will win this election; but, if I don’t, I will still think of it as a virtue, because she’s gotten the message that people are dissatisfied.”