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Shipp: Georgia chief justice turns her back on supporters

POSTED: November 12, 2008 5:00 a.m.

An important Georgia political story was lost in the hoopla surrounding this year's presidential campaign and the closer-than-expected contest between Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Democratic challenger Jim Martin.

Last week, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears made a surprise announcement that she was going to resign from the bench during the coming summer, handing Gov. Sonny Perdue the opportunity to name her successor.

Sears, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1992 by then-Gov. Zell Miller, is the first African-American woman to serve as chief justice of a state Supreme Court anywhere in the nation.

What makes the announcement all the more strange is that in 2004, the last time Sears was on the ballot, Perdue mounted a concerted effort to boot Sears from the high court by actively backing the candidacy of her challenger, former Cobb County Superior Court Judge Grant Brantley. Perdue pulled the state's Republican establishment behind Brantley, who was a featured speaker at that year's Republican state convention and who received major fundraising help from GOP givers. Paul Bennecke, then the state Republican Party's political director, took a leave of absence to run Brantley's campaign, which attempted to paint Sears as an extreme liberal.

Unspoken but just below the surface of the effort to defeat Sears was Perdue's anger at her and some of her colleagues for ruling against him when he sued Democratic Attorney General Thurbert Baker in 2003 in an attempt to seize control of the state's legal affairs. The Supreme Court, with Sears in the majority, ruled that the attorney general has the right, as an independently elected constitutional officer, to handle the state's legal matters without interference from the governor.

State Democrats took note of the effort by Perdue and the Republicans to unseat Sears and mobilized to stop the power grab. The state Democratic Party, which at the time maintained a research operation, learned that Brantley had personal issues that raised serious questions about his fitness for the bench.

In addition to a history of problems paying taxes and other obligations, Brantley had spent years telling people that President Bush had nominated him to serve on the federal bench in 1992, and that only Bush's defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton that year had blocked him from the prestigious lifetime appointment. It turns out that Brantley's claim was untrue.

The re-election effort Sears mounted on her own behalf was fairly aimless, with little money and no message.

The Democrats also put up $150,000 to run TV ads statewide, utilizing the "multicandidate" loophole in Georgia law that allows parties to run advertisements supporting candidates without dollar limitation.

As a result, Sears won statewide with 62 percent of the vote, winning every county where the ads were seen, while losing many counties on the fringe of the state where it did not air. The Democratic Party took a public relations hit for its support of Sears, but Perdue's court-packing power grab had been averted.

Now Sears is going to hand Perdue the chance he was seeking in 2004. The success of Democrats and their allies in defending Sears and her colleague Carol Hunstein from being voted off the Supreme Court were rare victories in the effort to turn back Republicans' recent ascendancy in Georgia. Now Sears is going to deliver to Perdue the opportunity to reshape the court.

What is scarier about Perdue's potential appointment is that he has fully embraced his lame-duck status. He has made little effort to hide his disdain for the state's judiciary. He has stripped away funds to pay senior judges to preside over courts in crowded, understaffed circuits. He has also diminished to next to nothing state funds for indigent defense.

We can expect Perdue to make an appointment to the high court without regard to how well observers will respect his choice. He may appoint Brantley (which he apparently promised to do when he recruited him to run against Sears), or he may appoint Rick Thompson, the disgraced former U.S. attorney in South Georgia who was removed by the Justice Department for violating the public trust by politicizing his office on behalf of Georgia Republicans.

Current Atlanta U.S. Attorney David Nahmias or Macon U.S. Attorney Max Wood could be tapped to reward his refusal to pursue investigations of Perdue's wheeling and dealing in land and tax breaks with big contributors. Perdue could appoint his personal lawyer, Larry O'Neal, a legislator who engineered a personal $100,000 tax break for Perdue. The list goes on and on.

In any case, Sears is turning her back on the people who helped her in 2004, and is giving Perdue her seat after all. More proof that in politics, it's every man (or woman) for themselves.

Bill Shipp's column on Georgia politics appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com; Web site.



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