April 17, 2018
Most of the attention this election season has focused on primary races for governor and, locally, the three-way race for Athens-Clarke mayor.
But there are also two contested race for Superior Court judgeships in the Western Judicial Circuit, something unusual locally and statewide. Sitting judges often run unopposed, and when judges do have opposition, the incumbents usually win.
Two challengers are trying to upend that in the May 22 nonpartisan election.
Lisa Lott, a longtime public defender, is running hard for the seat now held by new Superior Court Judge Regina Quick, and Allison Mauldin, a longtime prosecutor in the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, is trying to unseat Judge Eric Norris.
All four candidates pitched for votes Monday night during a marathon election forum in Athens’ Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.
Superior Court Judge elections are non-partisan, but these two have a bit of a partisan twist.
Before accepting Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s appointment to the bench last year, Quick was a Republican member of the Georgia House, representing parts of Clarke and Oconee counties. Norris also ascended to the bench through a 2016 appointment by Deal. The Western Circuit’s two more senior judges, who are not up for re-election in this cycle, were also originally appointed rather than elected — Patrick Haggard, appointed by Deal in 2011, and Lawton Stephens, picked by Democratic Gov. Zell Miller in 1991.
Mauldin made a point of referring to her husband as a Democrat during the election forum, organized by a group called the “Athens Community Agenda.” Mauldin’s husband is Athens-Clarke County District Attorney Ken Mauldin, who has announced that if his wife wins the judgeship he will resign his post as district attorney to avoid a conflict of interest.
“I would never get an appointment by the governor,” she said.
But that was about a partisan as the forum got as the four candidates answered prepared questions.
Ethical rules for judges prohibit them from weighing in on legislative matters, such as whether the state Legislature should end or modify mandatory sentences, which force judges to give people convicted of certain crimes a sentence of at least a certain number of years no matter what the circumstances of the crime or the defendant.
Neither the sitting judges nor the challengers would weigh in on that issue.
They also showed little disagreement when asked for the qualities of a good judge.
“I think it is demeanor,” said Quick, and to “treat everyone in the courtroom with respect.”
Judges must also be “impartial,” Norris, said. Judges must rule based on the law, but with compassion and moderation, he said.
Judges also need a good sense of their community, said Lott, noting that three of the circuit’s four judges live in Oconee County, rather than in the more populous Clarke.
A question about the circuit’s greatest challenges did spark disagreement between Mauldin and Quick.
“The problem is there’s not a timely handling of cases. They tend to linger,” said Mauldin, referencing civil cases.
But judges have been efficient at clearing criminal dockets, Quick said.
Mauldin called for the establishment of a family court in the circuit.
The circuit now has a parental accountability court, presided over by Quick, but that’s not enough, Mauldin said.
Lott said voters should decide who’s on the bench.
“For too long Atlanta has dominated the decision of who is to serve as judge (here),” said Lott, for 18 years a public defender in Clarke and Oconee counties. “I believe in the principle of local control.”
Lott said the circuit’s biggest problems are poverty, the volume of cases and the “lack of resources” for both prosecutors’ offices and the public defenders’ offices.
“As a circuit, I think one of our challenge is access to civil justice,” Quick said.
“I’d like to know how to get into the heads” of teenagers and other young people facing serious charges, so he could change their minds before they got to that point, Norris said.
The forum, which lasted about three and a half hours, also included segments for candidates running for the Clarke County Board of Education and for the U.S. House of Representatives in Georgia’s 10th District — three Democrats and one Republican, not including incumbent Rep. Jody Hice, a hard-right Republican.
Video of each segment is now posted on the Athens Community Agenda Facebook page, along with video from an earlier forum at Mount Pleasant which brought together candidates for the Athens-Clarke County Commission and Athens-Clarke County mayor.