As spring begins to swing into the southeast, you may start noticing political signs in the west Georgia and metro area asking you to vote for a particular judge. That is because most judges in Georgia are elected by the people in non-partisan races. This is contrary to the process of the federal judiciary where judges are appointed by the President for life.
Trial court judges (state and superior courts) are elected to four-year terms in races during the primary elections. State court judges are elected by county. Superior court judges are elected by judicial circuits. Locally we have the Coweta Judicial Circuit (Carroll, Heard, Coweta, Troup, and Meriwether), the Tallapoosa Circuit (Haralson and Polk), and two counties that are one county circuits; Douglas and Paulding.
Appellate court judges (the Georgia Supreme Court and Georgia Court of Appeals) are elected to six-year terms in statewide nonpartisan races.
Some judges of other courts, such as probate and magistrate court judges, are elected in partisan races.
Other types of judges, such as municipal judges, juvenile court judges, associate magistrate judges and administrative law judges, are appointed to their positions.
Although all trial and appellate court judges eventually must run for election, many judges first are appointed by the governor to their judicial positions. The governor has the authority to make appointments to fill vacancies caused by the death, resignation or retirement of sitting judges. The governor will also appoint a judge when the creation of additional judgeships happens within a county or circuit. (The Coweta Judicial Circuit should be getting a 7th superior court judge this year).
In recent years, governors have somewhat relied upon the Judicial Nominating Commission to interview and recommend candidates to the governor. However, there is no requirement that the governor utilize the JNC or follow its recommendations. The governor appoints the members of the JNC, which generally includes lawyers and judges from around the state.
When judicial candidates run for election, they must follow the same campaign finance rules as all other candidates. Election campaigns cost money. So, sitting and prospective judges are permitted to raise money for their campaigns. All judicial candidates are required to file campaign disclosure reports that list each contribution and expenditure that exceeds $100.
Since political campaigns can sometimes get nasty, the conduct of judges is governed by the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct. The Code seeks to emphasize the ideas that judges must respect and honor the judicial office as a public trust and strive to enhance and maintain confidence in our legal system.
Judges are also held accountable to the public through the Judicial Qualifications Commission. The JQC is a constitutional commission comprised of members appointed by the governor, the Georgia Supreme Court and the State Bar of Georgia. It investigates complaints from citizens about judges. If the JQC believes that a judge has violated his oath of office or violated one of the canons in the Code, the JQC can seek discipline or removal of a sitting judge.
This system of accountability works fairly well in Georgia today. If a judge is not following the law or is behaves in an unbecoming manner, the people can simply remove that judge from the bench by electing his or her replacement. More serious situations may involve the JQC.
Either way, the citizens of Georgia should know that our judges are here to serve the people. My experience has been that the vast majority of our judges in west Georgia do just that. But, if that ever changes, we are fortunate to have remedies available for the independent people of Georgia.