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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fulton County Superior Court: Bedford vs. Bottoms

Judicial races are usually bland affairs.

Because candidates aren’t supposed to tip off how they’d rule on particular cases — or even types of cases — they normally don’t talk about anything other than qualifications. And usually, all the candidates — at least on the face of it — are “qualified.”

But Fulton County voters have two true Superior Court contests this year: One between seven candidates, and the other in which controversial incumbent T. Jackson Bedford faces a challenger, Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has support from neighborhood activists.

Superior Court is the highest level of court in the state system outside of the appellate courts. It's where felonies, divorces and a lot of financial cases are heard.

Bedford raised the ire of many intown Atlantans last year when he ruled that the Friends of Piedmont Park would have to pay damages to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens because of a lawsuit the nonprofit waged over the iconic greenspace’s controversial parking deck. Prior to that judgment, he sparked outrage when he granted bail in a Little Five Points murder case to Cori Williams, the accused killer of Terry Williams. And in 2006, he ordered Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard handcuffed in the courtroom, a move that angered community activists (the judge is white, and Howard's black).

Let’s just say Bedford has a nose for controversy.

The grumbling reached officialdom last week when a government watchdog filed an ethics complaints against the judge. In his complaints, George Anderson of Rome alleged the judge ordered contempt-of-court fines to be donated to his pet charity, failed to be thorough on his campaign disclosure forms, and discussed pending cases outside the courtroom. (Minutes from a July NPU-F meeting and members interviewed by CL say Bedford did discuss the Williams murder case.) The State Ethics Commission and Judicial Qualifications Commission have yet to weigh in on Anderson’s complaint.

Bedford’s opponent is Atlanta Magistrate Judge Keisha Lance Bottoms, a married mother of two with 14 years of varied experience as a lawyer. In the weeks leading up to the race, residents still smarting from Bedford’s rulings and alleged conduct have rallied around her.

As outlined in the ethics complaint, Bedford may have taken some very questionable actions; he appears, at least, to have allowed impulse to override good judgment. At the same time, Bottoms’ legal qualifications pale in comparison to Bedford’s: He’s a former head of the Atlanta Bar Association who’s served 12 years in the county’s highest level of courtroom; for six years, she’s been a part-time jurist in a low-level court — one that signs warrants and hears preliminary hearings.

We have concerns about Bedford’s temperament, but aren’t convinced that Bottoms has the necessary legal background to replace him. For more information on this race check out the candidates' websites (links above) and this League of Women Voters questionnaire.

The second contested Fulton County Superior Court judgeship is not only a crowded contest, but it’s wide open because there's no incumbent. Barring a landslide by one of eight candidates, the race will be decided in a Dec. 2 runoff. Making things more difficult for voters, there are many qualified candidates.

Whoever wins will be filling the shoes of Judge Thelma Wyatt Cumming-Moore. (She recently made headlines by ruling that the state had to consider carbon dioxide when permitting coal power plants — an unprecedented decision that slammed the brakes on a proposed coal plant in Early County and made utility lawyers across the country rethink their strategies. That ruling has been appealed.)

The candidates' backgrounds range from assistant district attorney to defense lawyer to corporate litigator. Patrise Hooker — who according to her website boasts endorsements from Atlanta City Council President Lisa Borders and Councilmembers Kwanza Hall and Caesar Mitchell — is a specialist in general corporate and commercial real estate law. She lost a 2004 Fulton County Superior Court bid.

Kelly Lee, the youngest of the candidates, is a partner at a local firm and specializes in contract and insurance coverage disputes.

In 2005, Myles Eastwood was eyed by Gov. Sonny Perdue to fill an open position in the court, but in the end wasn’t appointed.

According to his website, Lawrence Cooper has tried cases involving brain and spinal cord injuries and divorce cases.

Kimberly Esmond Adams, a Notre Dame graduate and veteran of several high-profile trials, is the Fulton County Chief Senior District Attorney.

Karlise Yvette Grier is an Atlanta native and Emory Law School graduate who heads her own firm specializing in domestic relations cases.

Prior to her current job as Clayton County Chief Solicitor General, Patricia “Pat” Jackson prosecuted cases in Atlanta municipal and Fulton County Superior Court.

One candidate, Mike Wallace, should be familiar with the Fulton County Superior Court — he’s presided over cases for the last four years as a fill-in judge to help chip away at its large caseload.

For the information about the ins and outs and pros and cons of each candidate, visit their respective websites below or the League of Women Voters’ voting guide. Let us know in the comments how you’re leaning or if you have any special insights.

Check out CL's 2008 Voter's Guide and add your comments to races you care about. On Oct. 21, come back to find a handy cheat-sheet for the voting booth.

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