Commentary: Why Georgia’s most important decision on Election Day isn’t Trump or Clinton

The executive directors of the Southern Center for Human Rights and Common Cause Georgia want you to vote no on Amendment 3
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When Georgians head to the polls on November 8, they’ll be faced with more than just a top-of-the-ticket decision between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. At the very bottom of the ballot, Georgia voters have an opportunity to stop an incredibly harmful measure, proposed Constitutional Amendment Number 3, in its tracks—and, in the process, stand up for judicial integrity and accountability across the state.

The outcome of the vote on Amendment 3 will determine the survival of a little known, but critically important state entity known as the Judicial Qualifications Commission (the “JQC”). For more than four decades, the JQC has served as Georgia’s sole judicial watchdog, forcing judges who abuse their power to change their ways or resign from the bench. JQC investigations have uncovered racism, sexism, nepotism and criminal activity in the judiciary branch—and, in turn, the JQC has created a judiciary in Georgia that is fairer and more impartial.

Take, for example, the case of Brunswick Circuit Chief Judge Amanda Williams, who resigned from the judiciary in 2012 after the JQC brought formal charges against her for jailing defendants indefinitely without access to lawyers, displaying preferential treatment to relatives practicing in her court, using abusive and insulting language in court, and allowing her personal lawyer to appear before her. Her actions were profiled on an episode of This American Life that aired nationally. Williams is now under indictment for her actions on the bench for allegedly lying under oath about certain actions she took as a judge.

Currently, the JQC’s seven members are selected by the Supreme Court of Georgia and the State Bar, and the membership includes non-lawyer citizen members. However, if Amendment 3 is approved, the power to appoint a majority of members to the JQC would shift to the General Assembly, placing the agency under the thumb of partisan influences in the legislature and stripping it of its independence. In short, Amendment 3 is a blatant political power grab that seeks to politicize Georgia’s judiciary branch in a shocking and dangerous manner.

The backers of Amendment 3 say they are trying to solve an alleged problem—operational inefficiency within the JQC—that doesn’t even exist. The JQC has been functioning smoothly for many years, and has removed more than five dozen corrupt judges from the bench since 2007. Recently, the agency even won the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s Weltner Award for its affirmation that Georgia courts must be open to the public. So why would our elected officials want to alter the makeup of the JQC considering the effective work being done?

The answer? Unfortunately, Amendment 3 reeks of revenge and retaliation. While most Georgia judges serve honorably, there are always a few bad apples in the bunch. Consider the case of former Griffin Circuit Superior Court Judge Johnnie Caldwell, Jr., who resigned from the bench amid a JQC investigation into allegations that he made rude, sexually suggestive comments to a female attorney. Caldwell promised that he would never run for judicial office again. Two years later, former judge Caldwell became a state Representative, and, in an effort to dismember the agency that brought his explicit behavior into public view, co-sponsored the legislation that placed Amendment 3 on the ballot.

Those championing the passage of Amendment 3 are banking on voters not understanding the intentionally vague, misleading language on the ballot. In a recent radio interview, a central figure behind the push to remake the JQC, State Representative Wendell Willard, remarked, “It’s like inside baseball . . . my expectation is probably two-thirds of people going in to cast their ballot will not even know that [Amendment 3] is on the ballot, and they’ll read down and look at it and say ‘well that sounds logical, a good thing to do,’ and hopefully approve it.”

These legislators are trying to pull a fast one on Georgia voters, and we can’t let it happen. They are attempting to trick Georgians who believe in a transparent and accountable judiciary into voting in favor of Amendment 3—a destructive measure that will ONLY benefit the political insiders seeking revenge for their corrupt cronies on the bench, and not regular Georgians like us.

On Election Day, don’t let the politicians fool you. When you cast your ballot on November 8, stand up for judicial integrity and a court system that is free from partisan influences and political abuses. Vote “no” on Amendment 3 and allow the JQC to continue its work that demonstrates that no one, not even judges, is above the law.

Sara Totonchi is the Executive Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. Brinkley Serkedakis is the Executive Director of Common Cause Georgia. Together they represent Georgians for Judicial Integrity, a group of concerned individuals and organizations who have come together to defeat Amendment 3 on November 8, 2016. Learn more at georgiajudges.org.

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