Latino judge faced stiff opposition to seat on Georgia’s top court

Governor’s big decision

Gov. Nathan Deal will get to pick who will fill three open Georgia Supreme Court seats, but first a Judicial Nominating Commission will vet the potential contenders. More than 130 attorneys were nominated, and about 50 submitted detailed applications for the open slots. The governor is set to decide in the next few months.

Two of the open slots were created by legislation that boosts the court from seven justices to nine, and a third was left open by Chief Justice Hugh Thompson’s decision to retire in January.

Dax Lopez isn't the only prominent judge to take his name out of the competition. Several other possible contenders have also dropped out of the running, including Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Dillard.

With the three new openings, Deal has the chance to appoint a majority of the court's bench before he leaves office in January 2019. He has already made one appointment — Keith Blackwell was tapped in June 2012 — and Presiding Justice Harris Hines also said he plans to retire before Deal's tenure is up.

More than 130 lawyers were nominated for the three open Georgia Supreme Court slots, but there was only one who provoked a storm of letters to Gov. Nathan Deal’s office.

Two county sheriffs urged Deal not to appoint State Court Judge Dax Lopez to Georgia’s highest bench. A conservative Atlanta group said his history should “disqualify” him from the seat. And a string of voters added their objections, using the words “frightening” and “stupid” to describe his potential candidacy.

The judge's offense? His past membership in the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, a bipartisan advocacy group that supports a path to citizenship for people in the U.S. illegally and fought tougher state laws on immigration.

For Lopez, a Hispanic Republican who decided last month not to seek appointment to the state’s top bench, it is a familiar line of attack.

The same criticism led U.S. Sen. David Perdue to scuttle Lopez's nomination in January after President Barack Obama sought to make him the state's first lifetime-appointed Latino federal judge. And a Republican challenger in a failed May campaign to oust Lopez from the DeKalb County bench labeled him a "rejected politician."

The pushback against him illustrates the GOP’s hard-line tilt over immigration that fueled Donald Trump’s presidential nomination — and why it can be difficult for the party to attract Latinos.

Deal has three slots to fill on the Georgia Supreme Court because state lawmakers went along with his plan this year to add two positions to the court. Another long-serving justice is set to retire in January.

Lopez, who declined to comment Tuesday, stepped down from GALEO in September 2015, shortly after his nomination to the federal bench. But he has said he was frustrated he did not get a chance to tell his side of the story during the federal nomination process. Latino advocates say it's symptomatic of deeper problems.

“Anti-immigrant activists are extremists and not in the mainstream, and GALEO has Latino community members from both sides of the aisle,” said Jerry Gonzalez, GALEO’s executive director. “The current political environment has stoked many xenophobic and racist ideas that, polls show, are repulsed by many Americans.”

‘History should disqualify him’

When Obama tapped Lopez for the seat in July 2015 it seemed to many to be a foregone conclusion. State Republican Party counsel Anne Lewis, former state House Majority Whip Ed Lindsey and other prominent GOP attorneys signed a letter to the senators in support of Lopez a few months later.

But a groundswell of conservative blowback quickly slowed the momentum as critics highlighted his past membership on GALEO's board. It dovetailed with a hardening GOP immigration stance that featured Trump's tough-talking call for mass deportations of millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally and construction of a wall on the border with Mexico.

That opposition continues to haunt Lopez, a member of the conservative Federalist Society who was first appointed to the Georgia bench by then-Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue. Under pressure to increase diversity on the state’s top bench, Lopez was considered by some observers a serious contender for an open seat.

But The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that Deal had received a string of anti-Lopez letters that revealed just how divisive his nomination would have been. The Lopez critiques were the only ones sent to Deal’s office in recent months singling out a potential judicial candidate.

The executive board of the Conservative Republican Women of North Atlanta wrote Deal that Lopez’s “history should disqualify” him. Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway said Lopez “closely aligned himself with a radical organization,” and Union County Sheriff Mark Mason said Lopez’s ties to GALEO were a deal-breaker.

“Say it ain’t so!” added a voter, Ernest Wade of Loganville. “If you appoint Dax Lopez to Georgia’s Supreme Court, then we all know that you have been deceiving us.”

Much of the opposition was marshaled by D.A. King, an activist who casts himself as a defender of immigration law and an opponent of GALEO. King cheered Perdue’s decision to block the Lopez nomination earlier this year, and urged his supporters to dial Deal’s office last month to oppose an “anti-enforcement judge from the illegal alien lobby.”

Lopez said it would have been a "great honor" to serve on the state's top court but that he enjoys being a trial judge, and he has told his friends he wants to stay on DeKalb's bench. After his federal appointment was blocked, he blamed the "divisive politics that now permeate even judicial nominations" for muddying his shot at the federal judiciary.

Fred Hicks, who managed Lopez’s judicial campaigns, said he saw a parallel in Trump’s comments on the ethnicity of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge overseeing a fraud case against one of the Republican nominee’s businesses.

“The sweeping assumptions they make based on ethnicity is ridiculous, has no place in politics and will, sooner rather than later, hurt the Republican Party,” Hicks said.

Some Hispanic GOP advocates, meanwhile, lament what they see as a missed opportunity.

Jason Anavitarte, a Paulding County activist who was one of Marco Rubio’s top supporters in Georgia, said he’s worried that the opposition to Lopez coupled with heated immigration rhetoric will prevent a generation of conservative Latinos from seeking public office.

“Younger and older Hispanic Republicans come to me and tell me they want to get involved, but this kind of stuff keeps them from engaging,” Anavitarte said. “We have to find a way to have these discussions without having it become so politically divisive, but the tone of this election prevents them from getting involved.”

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