Georgia's courts aren't for rent
A wise old lawyer once told me that it's better to know the judge than to know the law. That's something they don't teach in law school.
Or business school, apparently.
But things have changed dramatically, judging from this year's only competitive race for a seat on the Georgia Supreme Court.
Normally, these down-ballot races for the state's appellate courts generate the same level of interest and excitement as worm racing or the latest news about Eva Gabor (still dead). And that's too bad.
The 12 jurists on the Georgia Court of Appeals and the seven justices on the Supreme Court interpret laws that the legislature approves and governor signs. They make sure that trial judges follow correct procedure in criminal and civil cases. Members of the high court also discipline lawyers who lose their ethics - or their pants - in their dealings with clients.
But this election year, there's a lot more tenderness in this rarefied, stuffy courtroom air. As in legal tenderness.
A group that calls itself the Safety and Prosperity Coalition has raised a boatload of money (around $300,000) to knock Justice Carol Hunstein from her perch on the judicial hierarchy after 14 years of service. Big contributions ($50,000 each) have come from DaimlerChrysler, Georgia Hospital Association and Independent Agents of Georgia Political Action Committee, with the Georgia Medical PAC kicking in 100 grand. Even the Coca-Cola Bottlers Association ponied up $25,000.
Meanwhile, a group that wants to keep Hunstein on the state's payroll has raised a bigger boatload of money (around $700,000), largely from individuals. That means more than $1 million likely will be spent on a race that used to attract pocket change.
Should the average Georgian care that the bucks are being tossed around like Paris Hilton's underdrawers at a Hollywood night club? Absolutely. Otherwise, they could wind up with the best judicial system that money can buy, which works best for those with the fattest wallets.
I don't have a problem with contested judicial races. Or even campaign contributions, as long as it gets reported. Making incumbent judges come down from the bench and mix it up with the common people (and no, local bar associations don't count) helps deter "robe-itis" - an affliction that can make a jurist behave like a spoiled rock star or your average British royal.
But voters must do their part. They must weigh records and qualifications.
And they must follow the money.
I'm not saying that the judiciary is for sale. A million dollars doesn't buy what it used to. But it might be enough to rent it out for special occasions.
The knock on Hunstein from the group supporting her challenger, attorney Mike Wiggins, is that she's too left, too soft on crime and too pro-plaintiff in liability cases. In the words of Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, she "represents a significant threat to our state's prosperity."
I like Home Depot. I made three separate trips there Sunday while doing a plumbing project. But Marcus's words don't square with Hunstein's solid record. The Fulton Daily Report, a respected newspaper read by Georgia's lawyers, examined her votes in 99 close criminal cases since 1992. She sided with prosecutors in 64 cases, or two out of three times. So if she's got a bleeding heart, so does Judge Frankenstein.
Maybe Hunstein is a closet Pepsi drinker or buys her plumbing supplies at Lowe's. But appellate court judges aren't supposed to retry cases or rehear evidence. Their main job is to look for disorder in the court at the trial level.
Bernie and his pals should look at it this way: If they've got a problem with Georgia's courts, they can't fix it on the wholesale level. They've got to fix it on the retail level in every Superior Court and State Court in Georgia. It's sort of like the way Home Depot goes after Lowe's or Coke challenges Pepsi.
It's up to the voters, meanwhile, to make sure the courts stay on the level - or the fix may be in.