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Judges Gear up for Ballot Fights

Three justices and five appellate judges each prepare for potential statewide battle for re-election in May

, Daily Report

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Judges gear up for ballot fights

More than a third of the state's appellate judges quietly have been preparing for the race they hope won't happen.

Three Georgia Supreme Court justices—Robert Benham, P. Harris Hines and Keith Blackwell—must face the voters in May if they want to keep their seats. And five Court of Appeals judges—Gary Andrews, Sara Doyle, William Ray II, Elizabeth "Lisa" Branch and Carla Wong McMillian—are expected to be on the ballot.

Interested candidates must file paperwork to run in about a month, and so far there are no signs of a challenger to any of the incumbents. All of the incumbent appellate judges up for election this year, except Andrews, raised money the latter half of last year. Andrews said last week he was getting back into the fundraising game now.

Benham's assessment of his situation was typical of the judges facing re-election this year: "We are hoping we don't have any opposition … but we're preparing in case we do have opposition." Appointed to the high court 1989 and re-elected four times, Benham had nearly $120,000 in his coffers at year's end.

Much of the work of a statewide judicial campaign is about raising money. Several of the incumbent Court of Appeals judges had more than $50,000 on hand at the end of the year, and two of the Supreme Court justices had more than $100,000. The candidates must file updated reports with the state ethics commission this week.

Some appellate judges said last week they had additional fundraising events scheduled, and one judge said at this point she would sit tight and see if anyone announces plans to run against her.

Hines, appointed in 1995 and a victor in three high court elections, credited a single fundraiser for bringing in much of the nearly $89,000 he reported for the latter half of 2013. Sitting with nearly $127,000 in cash-on-hand as of year-end, he said he hadn't heard of challengers to any of the appellate judges but would continue "to be out and about a lot."

A possible argument against his re-election is that Hines will turn 75 about four years into a new six-year term, at which point he will have to retire or lose his pension, per a state law. In 1992, an incumbent on the Court of Appeals lost his seat when a challenger told voters that the incumbent wouldn't be able to serve his full term.

If Hines is re-elected and retires just before he turns 75 to save his pension, the governor—not the voters—would pick his successor. Hines said he nonetheless felt comfortable offering himself up for another term, noting he wouldn't be the first judge in the state to leave mid-term.

By seniority, Hines is next in line to be chief justice, but he said that wasn't his primary motivation for running again. "Obviously, it would be nice to be chief if that works out," he said. "I'm motivated to serve the people of Georgia, that's my first motivation."

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