Lawyer-funded incumbent says 'you cannot buy a seat' on the bench

Legal News Line Nov. 21, 2006, 10:47am

Justice Carol Hunstein seated at left

ATLANTA--A lot of mud was slung and a lot of money was spent to unseat Georgia's presiding chief justice. But in the end Justice Carol Hunstein remains firmly ensconced in the Georgia Supreme Court. After a bitterly fought election battle characterized by controversial negative advertising, incumbent Hunstein easily fought off a well-funded challenge by pro-business opponent Mike Wiggins. The race broke records for spending in a Georgia Supreme race with about $2.7 million total ad buys. Hunstein's campaign spent about $1 million, mostly contributed by trial lawyers, while Wiggins' campaign was funded largely by a Georgia-business umbrella group called the Safety and Prosperity Coalition (SPC), which spent around $1.7 million. Georgia Supreme Court races are officially non-partisan. The SPC was formed last year following the passage of an omnibus tort-reform bill in the Georgia statehouse. Its aim was, and is, to protect reform legislation from being watered down in the courts. SPC chairman Eric Dial said the group targeted Hunstein as a candidate to challenge because "she's already ruled against several provisions [of the Bill] in the most overt fashion possible." During the campaign Hunstein strongly criticized the amount of money SPC was spending and claimed the group represented out-of-state special interests. At her victory party at the Atlanta law office of Balch and Bingham, Hunstein told supporters: "You cannot buy a seat on the Georgia Supreme Court." Hunstein has spent 14 years on the Georgia Supreme Court since being appointed by Democrat Governor Zell Miller in 1992. The first woman to serve on the court, Hunstein had been re-elected twice since then but had never before faced opposition. But SPC decided to fund opposing candidate Wiggins, who was previously an attorney in President George W. Bush's administration, because of Hunstein's long record of anti-business rulings and her close connection to Georgia's trial lawyers, Dial said. The group fears that judges like Hunstein will whittle away the tort-reform bill, which includes restrictions in key areas of business interest like trial-venue shopping, medical-malpractice lawsuits and expert-witness provisions. Although four sitting Georgia Supreme Court justices faced opponents, SPC decided to go after Hunstein. "We determined that she was the most activist and the most liberal," Dial said. "She was taking campaign money from trial lawyers who were [then] appearing before her two weeks later." Consequently, SPC and the state Republican Party hammered Hunstein with television ads claiming that she was soft on crime. Hunstein hit back with a deeply personal attack ad that claimed Wiggins had been sued by his terminally ill mother and had threatened to kill his sister. That testiness spilled over into a bruising final debate between the candidates at the Atlanta Press Club. Hunstein defended the controversial ad by saying its claims "reflect on his character." Wiggins countered that the ad was "desperate and despicable" and referred to Hunstein as a "justice for sale" because of her support from trial lawyers. Dial said Wiggins was already behind when the ad broadcast. "We knew it would be an uphill battle and that we were fighting a tough crowd," he said of the original decision to take on Hunstein. But he added that Hunstein's personal attack caught Wiggins' campaign off guard because they weren't aware of the tragic family dispute that sparked it. Dial said the ad contributed heavily to Wiggins' landslide defeat, 62% to 38%. Political analysts also attributed Wiggins' loss to the non-partisan nature of state supreme court races. University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that Wiggins lost votes amongst potential Republican supporters because those voters could not see his political affiliation on their ballot papers. Nonetheless, SPC is not deterred and Dial said the coalition will continue to support judicial and other candidates who support the tort-reform law. He termed it "possible" that SPC will again support future Supreme Court justice candidates like Wiggins in Georgia. Dial added that SPC remains "very optimistic" about the coalition's future success in defending the tort reform bill. "After a sixty-two to thirty-eight percent defeat," he noted, "you can only be optimistic."

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