The commission that oversees Georgia judges has issued a warning that candidates for judgeships must remain non-partisan after an Atlanta lawyer running for the Georgia Court of Appeals said publicly that he is a Republican and his opponent is not.
Georgia policy is that judicial races are non-partisan because judges are supposed to preside without any political biases. Candidates must follow the same rules as a sitting judge.
The warning is a rare step for the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission, which is the state’s judicial watchdog agency that investigates complaints of misconduct.
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JQC executive director Ben Easterlin confirmed Monday that Ken Shigley, one of the candidates for the only contested race for a seat on State Court of Appeals, had injected partisanship into his campaign ads and on social media.
Shigley said he brought up his affiliation with the Republican Party only after his opponent, former Dougherty County District Attorney Ken Hodges, released the names of those who have endorsed him, including Republican former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss who is his campaign chairman.
“I’ve got far more Republican support than he does,” Hodges said, adding, however, that he is also backed by Democrats. “I have bi-partisan support.”
Shigley, however, saw it differently. He believes Hodges was trying to convince “Republicans he was a Republican. We just punched back when we got punched.
“I started out running it (the campaign) … on experience and ideas,” Shigley said. “Then he comes out with all these political endorsements… I tried to even it up.”
The two are running in the only contested state-wide judicial race. Seven other seats are on the May 22 non-partisan ballot, but all are incumbents running unopposed.
“Statewide judicial elections are free of partisanship. …We received emails and phone calls from various people around the state, questioning whether this was over the line or not. I don’t know that it was. We didn’t institute any formal complaint. We felt like it was a question that needed a caution to all the candidates not to ignore that prescription,” Easterlin said.
The JQC wrote in a news release posted on its website: “…The commission cautions any judicial candidate against making comments or seeking endorsements which may conflict with the non-partisan duties required of a statewide judge in the state of Georgia.”
Despite the JQC reminder, Shigley has continued to note his GOP roots.
In response to a question about his “conservative or liberal views” and whether he is a Republican or a Democrat, Shigley posted on his campaign Facebook page that he is running in a “nonpartisan judicial election. No party affiliation appears on the ballot.”
He goes on to write,” I have been cautioned by the JQC for partisan comments. My family has been mostly Republican since 1856, and I have traditional family values. The other candidate was the Democratic Party nominee for Attorney General in 2010.”
Judicial candidates must walk a fine line in their public comments. Judicial canons — the code of conduct for judges — limit what they can say, yet they are guaranteed the right to speak freely under the U.S. Constitution. The JQC is charged with determining when the cannons are violated, and the agency has the power to recommend that the Georgia Supreme Court remove a judge who is found to have committed egregious acts.
“Freedom of speech is sacred, and that includes the right of judicial candidates to say things that may be deemed inappropriate,” said Sean Young, legal director of the ACLU of Georgia. “It is up to Georgia voters to weigh in on this ongoing conversation and at the polls. Robust conversations about judicial qualifications and other topics are what strengthen our democracy.”