Kemp picks African Americans to fill key positions in justice system

The big, enthusiastic crowds reinforce the historical significance of the swearing-in ceremonies.

In recent months, Gov. Brian Kemp has attended investiture ceremonies of African Americans he has appointed to key positions in the state’s justice system. Some broke long-entrenched racial barriers.

At the state Capitol, Tadia Whitner took the oath to become the first black judge on Gwinnett County's Superior Court bench. In a ceremonial courtroom in Marietta, Kemp also swore in Joyette Holmes as the first African American district attorney of Cobb County.

“It’s kind of neat,” Kemp said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “You can tell they’re historic from the level of excitement at the swearing-ins. There’ve been huge crowds. You see the whole community come out because people recognize the historic nature. It’s exciting.”

During his seven months in office, Kemp has appointed blacks to other key positions in the state's justice system. He tapped former police chief Tyrone Oliver to head the state's Department of Juvenile Justice. He also put former prosecutor Shondeana Morris on the DeKalb County Superior Court bench and elevated Judge Jeffery Monroe to the Superior Court of the Macon Judicial Circuit.

The placement of blacks in key judicial posts comes after former Gov. Nathan Deal received some criticism for not appointing more people of color to the bench during his eight years in office. And they have come as a surprise to some of Kemp’s critics. The Republican won last year by appealing mainly to the state’s rural white voters. He won just a tiny percentage of black voters in the race against Democrat Stacy Abrams, who had been hoping to make history as the nation’s first female African American governor.

Kemp’s appointments so far have been a welcome sight, said Atlanta lawyer Liz Broadway Brown, president of the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys.

“We are paying close attention to the governor’s judicial appointments and are energized to see the diversity in the candidates selected to fill these very important positions,” Brown said.

The legal group is encouraging its members to apply when opportunities arise, because it’s important for the judiciary to reflect the communities it serves, she added. “I trust the governor agrees with that proposition and will continue to look to fill openings with qualified women and men who reflect that necessary diversity.”

In the interview, Kemp said he’d welcome the applications.

“I think we’ve sent a message to everyone that if you’re qualified and you feel like you’re the best person to serve in that role we’ll take a hard look at you,” the governor said. “I don’t think people are saying, ‘Well, there’s no need for me to apply because Brian Kemp’s governor.’ And that’s good. They shouldn’t, because we’re looking for qualified people.”

Kemp said he looks for certain qualities when deciding who to appoint to the bench.

“I want somebody who’s going to follow the law, not try to make it,” he said. “We’ve got the Legislature to do that.”

Another priority is to find candidates who will run efficient courtrooms, he said.

“Attorneys I’ve talked to say they want a judge who will move things along … so there’s not delay, delay, delay,” Kemp said. “You need to have a good orderly process for people to go through. I think our citizens and businesses deserve that.”

The governor also said he’s well aware that he’s appointing someone who will have to stand for election. “You want to put somebody in who can stay there and win,” he said. “I think all of those folks we’ve picked have the personal qualities you need to hold elective office in their counties or circuits.”

Whitner, Kemp's appointee to the Gwinnett bench, became the county's first black Juvenile Court judge in 2016. The former prosecutor and public defender said she was honored to become the county's first black person to serve on the Superior Court when Kemp swore her in on July 16.

“It’s a big deal,” she said. “I’m glad I can be an example or be someone others can look to and say, ‘If she can do it, I can too.’”

Judge Warren Davis, who served as chief Magistrate Court judge for 21 years before joining Gwinnett’s Superior Court in 2008, said Whitner will be an extraordinary addition to the court. “Diversity broadens our skill set and ensures that our community is heard and represented,” he said.

Last year, Ronda Colvin Leary became the first African American elected to any countywide position in Gwinnett when she won the race for a seat on the State Court bench.

“You want diversity to become a non-issue and that seems to be happening here,” said Senior Judge Dawson Jackson, who has served on the Gwinnett State and Superior Court benches since 1979. “Judge Whitner being appointed is a nice thing. The time had come.”