L to R: Judge Deborah Benefield, Judge Morris Braswell and Judge Matthew O. Simmons
L to R: Judge Deborah Benefield, Judge Morris Braswell and Judge Matthew O. Simmons ()

Judicial races are shaping up in Clayton County for the 2016 election, with at least three judges announcing plans to retire and create open seats on the ballot.

Two judges in Clayton County Superior Court and one in Clayton County State Court have said they don’t plan to seek re-election in 2016. Nine lawyers have announced plans to run for those offices.

Superior Court Judge Matthew Simmons and Judge Deborah Benefield have said they will retire when their terms expire at the end of the year. State Court Judge Morris Braswell said this week he doesn’t plan to seek re-election in 2016, although Braswell was more tentative.

“You never say never,” Braswell said. Then he offered Yogi Berra quotes such as: “There comes a time in every man’s life, and I’ve had plenty of them.” And, “It’s not over until it’s over.”

Regardless of how it turns out, this election year marks a major shift in the Clayton judiciary, said Shana Rooks, a divorce lawyer and county commissioner who said she will give up her commission seat to run for superior court judge. She noted that half the superior court’s four-judge bench will turn over this year.

Rooks said she would be a rare type of judge—one that likes hearing divorce cases, which take up the biggest portion of time in superior court. She said judges tell divorcing spouses to work out their own agreements rather than having a stranger do it for them. “But that doesn’t happen,” she said. “People can’t always think clearly then. I come with the background and knowledge to help them.”

Rooks said she plans to run for the open seat created by Simmons’ retirement. Rooks already has one announced opponent, Stephen Knights of Knights Law Group.

Knights, a member of the Georgia bar since 2006, has served as a magistrate judge, a prosecutor, a public defender and an intern for the Innocence Project. Knights said he also teaches classes in criminal justice for Southern Crescent Technical College and Clark Atlanta University and legal-based sociology at Morehouse College.

He said he has been working on his campaign since last summer, following a conversation with the retiring judge last spring.

Adding to the conversation about 2016 judicial races in Clayton is anticipation that the county may soon have a fifth judgeship, but no one knows whether that position will be on the ballot. The Judicial Council of Georgia approved a request last fall from Clayton County Superior Court Chief Judge Albert Collier for a new position, subject to the approval of the Georgia General Assembly.

Tammi Long Hayward, a magistrate court judge, said speculation about when the fifth judge spot will open is part of why she is waiting to declare which seat she is seeking. Her campaign announcement simply says she is running for superior court.

“I’m interested in the court, not the seat,” Hayward said this week. She said when she filed her declaration of intent to run, she asked the elections worker if she could write in both retiring superior court judges. The answer, she said, was: “‘I don’t know why not.’”

She added she will decide during the qualifying week in March.

Another candidate who has announced for superior court without naming a seat is Leslie Miller-Terry, a prosecutor with the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office. Her campaign website bio says she is a former solicitor in Clayton County and a former sole practitioner.

Also Marcus Thorpe, a former prosecutor and now in private practice, has announced plans to run for superior court without saying which seat.

Robert Mack Jr. of Mack & Harris was clear on which seek he is seeking (Benefield’s) and why. After 22 years as a criminal defense lawyer, he’d like to see some changes made in court. “I don’t care about winning or losing cases. I just want to be sure justice is served,” Mack said. “If we really think people are innocent until proven guilty, why do we treat them like they’re guilty through the whole process?”

Mack recalled a client he represented on a murder charge who was denied bail and languished in jail for three years before being acquitted at trial. “He’ll never get that three years back,” Mack said.

Despite Braswell’s reluctance to talk about retirement, speculation about his open seat has already drawn three announced candidates: Hugh Cooper, a solo lawyer and former prosecutor who serves as an associate magistrate court judge; Betrice Scott, an associate magistrate court judge and former assistant solicitor; and Jewell Scott, a former district attorney now with the DUI and family law firm Scott & Turner.

Braswell noted it’s still early, and the full story on who is running for what will emerge in qualifying, “when they write the check.” He was referring to the qualifying fee: $4,563 for state court judge, according to the Clayton County Board of Elections website.

Qualifying opens March 7 and closes March 11. The nonpartisan election is combined with the general election on May 24. The runoff date for nonpartisan elections is July 26.

Here’s the list of candidates who have announced plans to run for Clayton County’s open judicial seats:

Clayton County Superior Court

Judge Matthew Simmons’ seat:

• Stephen Knights

• Shana Rooks

Judge Deborah Benefield’s seat:

• Robert Mack Jr.

Candidates for unspecified seat:

• Tammi Long Hayward

• Leslie Miller Terry

• Marcus Thorpe

Clayton County State Court

Judge Morris Braswell’s seat:

• Hugh Cooper

• Betrice Scott

• Jewell Scott