JAMES Magazine Online: Little Surprise in Judicial Elections

Baker Owens

Thursday, May 23rd, 2024

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Judicial elections in Georgia are a unique animal, in a number of ways.

First of all, they are nonpartisan. An issue that rose to the fore as Supreme Court candidate – and former Democratic House Representative – John Barrow invoked specific political stances, on abortion specifically, during his candidacy.

Second, elections for judicial seats take place during the primary for all other offices. This can have a significant impact on turnout. Turnout numbers for the last few elections have had some odd circumstances but for example, turnout for Tuesday’s primary statewide totaled somewhere around 1.15 million (votes were still being counted at deadline) or 1.2 million. If the election were held in November this year and turnout approaches anything like 2020, total votes would have been around 5 million. So, roughly 20 percent of Georgia general election voters turned out Tuesday to select four of the nine justices on Georgia’s highest law of the land.

Third, no one knows anything about them – except for astute James readers of course. Ask the average Georgian to name one Supreme Court Justice and you might come up empty. Attorneys, politicians or those that might have business before the court might be able to name a few of them. All but one of the current Supreme Court justices were appointed by a Republican governor. New justices are nearly always appointed to fill a vacancy from retirement or appointment to a federal bench. Then, one they are on, they can stay generally as long as they like.

There is very rarely a challenger because incumbency is so high. Not a single Supreme Court Justice in the history of Georgia’s court has been voted out. And it goes beyond just the Supreme Court – only five of the 122 superior court judges this year faced a challenger. Of the four Supreme Court justices and seven Court of Appeals judges up this year, only two were competitive races – one the aforementioned Barrow running against recent Governor Brian Kemp appointee Andrew Pinson and one an open seat on the Court of Appeals that pitted Jeff Davis (the generally assumed conservative candidate in the nonpartisan race) against Tabitha Ponder (the generally assumed democratic candidate in said nonpartisan race). Side note, as clearly demonstrated in that race, though the judicial races are nonpartisan, whenever there does happen to be a challenger, they might as well be partisan anyway.

Barrow and Democrats had hoped his name ID might carry the day over the more conservative Pinson, the most recent appointee to the court, but ultimately Pinson carried it easily. The incumbent Pinson might have been boosted by the powerful (I) and won by more than 100,000 votes – 615,000 to 506,000 at the time of this writing.

The contested Court of Appeals race between Davis and Ponder was to fill the retiring Yvette Miller’s seat. Davis won by nearly 150,000 votes – 606,000 to 460,000 at the time of writing.

A local race of note pitted Judge Scott McAfee – of Fulton County’s Trump election trial fame – against Robert Patillo for the Atlanta Judicial Circuit race. It was not close. McAfee carried the day with more than 80 percent of the vote – slightly less than McAfee’s trial mate District Attorney Fani Willis’ win with more than 85 percent of the vote (though Willis will face a Republican challenger in November).