April 12, 2014

Judicial dispute could have been avoided

The Daily Citizen

— Judicial elections in Whitfield and Murray counties tend to be low key. In fact, we can’t recall the last time an incumbent judge on the Conasauga Superior Court, which cover the two counties, has even faced a challenger.

But this year, Judge David Blevins faces two challengers, Dalton Municipal Court Judge Jim Wilbanks and Assistant District Attorney Scott Helton, and that race has emerged as one of the few so far this year with any fireworks.

Wilbanks has questioned whether Blevins’ serving as Gov. Nathan Deal’s local campaign chairman in 2010 had anything to do with Blevins landing the position. Blevins said there was nothing unethical about his appointment.

He does say he believes serving as a volunteer campaign chairman in Whitfield County as well as serving on the State Personnel Board gave Deal insight into his character and abilities.

“I would hope that the fact I had served well would be a favorable thing with the governor.” said Blevins. “I would hate to think that I would serve (and my service would work against me).”

Blevins came to the court in 2012 after Robert Adams stepped down. The seat was up for election in July 2012, but Adams retired before completing his term.

Five attorneys, including both Blevins and Wilbanks, applied to serve the remainder of the term, which expired at the end of 2012. The Judicial Nominating Commission for the state named Blevins and attorneys Celeste Creswell and Scott Minter as finalists for the post. After interviewing the three, Deal named Blevins judge.

But because of a quirk in the law, Blevins ended up serving not only the remainder of Adams’ term but two extra years.

Adams’ final day was Jan. 31, 2012. The state Constitution requires there be six months between the governor appointing a judge to fill an unexpired term and the next election for that seat. Deal appointed Blevins in February, leaving only about five months until the July 2012 election. Thus an election could not be held that year, so the next available day was this year’s general primary on May 20.

At the time, we urged Deal to wait until after the July primary to appoint someone to the bench. That way, voters could choose a new judge to fill the next term, and the person Deal appointed would serve only the final five months of Adams’ term.

Deal chose not to do that. There was nothing illegal about that choice, and there’s no evidence of any wrongdoing by either Deal or Blevins.

But we can understand how some might view the governor appointing the man who’d run his campaign in Whitfield County to a judicial post as just a little unseemly. And we can understand how someone who was denied a chance to run for an open judicial seat might feel cheated.

Ultimately, voters will decide on May 20 just how important this issue is. But we hope that local members of the Legislature will take another look at Georgia law and try to change it. Someone appointed to replace a judge who cannot or will not serve his full term should only serve the remainder of that term. That person should not also get two years of the next term in office for that post.