Chuck Williams: Lessons learned from the Superior Court finalists

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 11, 2013 

Finalists for Chattahoochee Superior Court judgeships

The list of potential Superior Court judges is an interesting blend of experience and consideration.

And as this process to appoint two new judges for the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit moves from the nominating and interviewing process to Gov. Nathan Deal’s office, that is important.

Experience and consideration.

In the next few months, Deal will likely name two judges from a list that includes two women, two black men and one white man.

The gender and race are important because retired Judge John Allen — respected statewide for his work on the watchdog commission that regulated judges — made sure it was. Allen, in the three months between announcing his retirement and leaving the bench Oct. 31, sent a memo to Deal asking the governor to consider race and gender in the appointment process.

Now that Allen is gone, there are five Superior Court judges, all white males. Allen, who is black, served two decades as a Superior Court judge and more than 26 years in the local judiciary.

The six-county Chattahoochee Circuit is more than 40 percent black and 51 percent women, as Allen pointed out in his memo. The most recent Chattahoochee Superior Court appointments have been white males — William Rumer and Art Smith.

Unless Deal deviates from the list submitted last week by the Judicial Nominating Commission, at least one appointment will be black or a woman. Those under consideration are:

Maureen C. Gottfried, 52, judge, State Court of Muscogee County; Ron Mullins, 62, partner, Page, Scrantom, Sprouse, Tucker & Ford, P.C.; Benjamin S. Richardson, 47, solicitor general, Muscogee County; Julia F. Slater, 47, district attorney, Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit; and Alonza Whitaker, 58, chief assistant district attorney, Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit.

Slater and Gottfried are women, Richardson and Whitaker are black, and Mullins is white.

The short list seems to reflect what Allen requested.

Now, look at the experience.

Gottfried, who has been on the State Court bench since 1995, is the only one with judicial experience. Slater, the district attorney since winning election in 2008, has twice run in the six-county circuit — and twice won contested elections. She has the experience of being elected and reelected. Richardson has nearly 20 years of experience as the chief State Court prosecutor. Whitaker also has a career’s worth of experience as a prosecutor.

There is a long line of Superior Court judges who have come out of the district attorney’s office, State Court and the solicitor general’s office.

All four of those short-list candidates also have experience at something else — being Democrats. They have all been on ballots in Muscogee County on the Democratic side of the ticket. So, it appears a Republican governor will be appointing at least one Democrat — possibly two.

Mullins is a well-respected attorney, working at one of the city’s largest law firms, primarily working on civil matters. This is the fifth time dating back nearly 15 years that Mullins has been on a short list. The last two appointments, Rumer and Smith, had little, if any, criminal experience when appointed.

It’s an interesting list. It also interesting who failed to make it. LaRae Moore, an assistant district attorney who unsuccessfully challenged Smith a year ago, did not make the short list despite having made it when Smith was tabbed by the governor.

It was also interesting for another reason: eight of the 22 applicants came from the district attorney’s office. That is more than a third of the field, and makes little to no sense.

A Superior Court judgeship is one of the most important jobs in this, or any, community in Georgia. They can take your freedom, your money and your kids with jurisdiction over criminal, civil and family law matters.

The number of applicants from the district attorney’s office is baffling on its face, unless some of the junior prosecutors were just trying to get their names in the mix for something down the road. Many of those who applied are younger attorneys without the experience or credentials those at the top of the list show.

And they were applying for a job that is also being sought by their boss and her top assistant. With the exception of Moore, who had already been on a short list, it is hard to understand how that makes much sense.

Now, all people in this circuit can do is sit and wait for a decision.

It should be interesting to see where experience and consideration collide.

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Chuck Williams, senior editor for content, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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