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Two fewer seats for lawyers in Georgia Legislature
The ranks of lawmakers in each chamber of the Georgia General Assembly will be down a lawyer in the 2013 session.
Tuesday's general election results show that 11 of the 56 senators and 28 of the 180 representatives are lawyers.
Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said she's seen members of the Senate or House of Representatives frequently turn to their attorney colleagues for guidance during committee hearings in which legislation is vetted.
"One of the most common phrases used by non-lawyer lawmakers in a committee after stating their opinion is 'but I'm not a lawyer,' and subsequently, all heads in the room turn to a legislator-lawyer to offer their perspective," she said.
Totonchi, who has closely monitored recent criminal justice reform efforts in the General Assembly, added that lawyers' practical experience is important to the process.
"Lawyer-legislators are uniquely positioned to offer perspective on how the system should function in a way that does more than just punish those who break the law," she said. "Moving away from a philosophy of being 'tough on crime' to one of being 'smart on crime' requires taking a good look at the underlying problems that contribute to problematic behavior. ... To be 'smart on crime' we need a comprehensive and holistic approach to improving the overall criminal justice system, and lawyers who have first-hand knowledge of the challenges and opportunities in the justice system can lead the way."
Sandra Michaels, a practicing criminal defense attorney and lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, echoed concerns about how fewer lawyer-lawmakers may affect legislation affecting criminal justice.
"Since the legislators are proposing, helping to draft and ultimately passing law, the training of lawyers brings a unique and needed skill," she said. "In particular, criminal justice legislation has to be carefully crafted to avoid any Georgia and U.S. Constitutional violations. While the legislative counsel does a wonderful job drafting legislation, the ultimate decision of the intent and words are with the legislators."
Other legal organizations are not concerned by the small decrease in lawyers under the Gold Dome.
The Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, which is keeping an eye on any efforts by conservatives to push for tort reforms, feels that there are enough lawyers to protect the interests of plaintiffs lawyers, said GTLA lobbyist Bill Clark.
"GTLA has spent a lot of effort to increase the number of lawyers elected to the Legislature, and we will continue doing so," said Clark. "But, given the strength, dedication and commitment of the lawyers who won election to the Legislature this year, we don't believe losing one or two lawyers from last year will affect the course of legislation important to rights of litigants or to the legal profession."
Of the 11 senators, eight are Republicans and three are Democrats, which represents a loss of one Republican lawyer. That lawyer was former Sen. Bill Hamrick of Carrollton, who was appointed to the Coweta Circuit Superior Court by Governor Nathan Deal in August.
In a special election for Hamrick's seat on Tuesday, attorney and former House Speaker Glenn Richardson came in third out of four Republican candidates, behind insurance agency Bill Hembree and general contractor Mike Dugan, respectively.
Hamrick also was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, so Senate leadership will have to determine who fills that seat starting in January.
Of the 28 members of the House, 20 are Republicans and eight are Democratsa loss of one Democratic lawyer. Prior to the elections, the House saw the departure of seven lawyer-lawmakers, three of whom were Democrats. Some left because of redistricting, such as Reps. Stephanie Benfield and Elena Parent, who chose not to run against fellow Democrats and instead took top administrative posts with legal agencies. Others returned to their practices or left to pursue other non-state legislative posts. During the general election, the House picked up two new Democratic lawyers and four Republican lawyers.
A couple of hotly contested races pitted lawyer against lawyer.
In the House District 81 race, Democrat incumbent Scott Holcomb, general counsel for brokerage firm J.P. Turner & Co., won re-election over Republican challenger and solo practitioner Chris Boedeker.
Holcomb garnered 56 percent of the vote, or 8,712 of the 15,545 votes cast. District 81 encompasses parts of northern DeKalb and Gwinnett counties.
The race ignited when an ad from Boedeker's campaign appeared online, attacking Holcomb's opposition earlier this year to a bill requiring drug testing of state welfare recipients. The video edited a House floor speech by Holcomb to make it sound as if Holcomb used illegal drugs while in the Army. The video was promptly removed from the Internet site YouTube after national and statewide media outlets picked it up, decrying it as false and misleading. Boedeker and his camp refused to comment on the video, citing threatened litigation. Meanwhile, Holcomb took aim at his opponent's tactics, calling Boedeker a coward and unfit for public service.
"I'm proud of the campaign I ran, and I'm very thankful to my amazing team," Holcomb said Wednesday. "I also want to thank the voters for re-electing me and for rejecting the negative, corrosive and dishonest campaign of my opponent."
Holcomb added that he was grateful for the legal community's support.
"I had tremendous support from Democrats, Republicans and independents, and it made a difference in my race," he said.
When reached Wednesday, Boedeker's only comment on the race was: "I want to congratulate Scott. He ran a professional campaign."
Both men agreed there is significant value in having lawyers in the Legislature.
"Writing laws and applying them, that's something attorneys do every day," Boedeker said. "And so, it's nice to have people with practical experience working on them so contradictions and things that just won't work can be addressed in the legislative process as opposed to in the courts."
"We can quickly identify and attempt to resolve problems in proposed bills, and our colleagues regularly ask us for our views on legislation," Holcomb said. "My prediction for the 2013 legislative session is that the dominant focus will be on health care. Specifically, the state needs to make final decisions on establishing a health care exchange and expanding Medicaid. For lawyers with a health care-related practice, it should be a very good year."