Thursday, July 16, 2009

Robert Williams of the Blackshear Times article on Carol Hunstein

As summer swelter sets in and we’ve marked one of our most precious holidays celebrating our freedoms, one little-noticed news item is deserving of our attention.

Carol Hunstein was sworn in last week as Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. This is a noteworthy achievement, not just for this jurist, but also for what it says about our state.

Justice Hunstein holding office at all right now demonstrates Georgians will pay attention when stakes are high enough and, ultimately, reject political opportunism and demagoguery, no matter how such tactics may be cloaked.

Justice Hunstein doesn’t represent a particular “first.” She’s not the first woman to reach the prestigious pinnacle of Georgia’s legal system. Her predecessor, Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, an African-American woman, filled that role with distinction before stepping down to pursue teaching the law.

Carol Hunstein had more than her share of adversities to overcome, however, to reach this lofty position: polio as a child and, later, cancer that caused a leg to be amputated. She went through college and law school as a young single mother and eventually won election as a Superior Court judge in Dekalb County. Governor Zell Miller appointed her to Georgia’s highest court in 1992.

Supreme Court Justices stand for election statewide but it’s rare when an open seat is to be filled and rarer still when a sitting justice has a contested race. That’s why it was such big news in 2006 when Hunstein became the only one of four justices seeking re-election to draw an opponent.

There was nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, except it soon became clear the challenger, Mike Wiggins, planned a campaign that would reach new lows for “judicial” conduct. Wiggins, a former lawyer in the Bush administration, had the backing of Governor Sonny Perdue, many in the state’s GOP hierarchy, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars - big Political Action Committee money - from sources never publicly identified. The campaign reached shameful levels, due primarily to Wiggins’ disregard for facts, starting with irrelevant and unsubstantiated charges that Hunstein was the most “liberal” member of a “liberal court.”

That conservative buzzword has long lost specific meaning but Wiggins used it as a broad brush to inaccurately tar Hunstein with absurd charges.

Georgians have a long history, however, of supporting an independent judiciary. Voters in 1938 turned their back even on popular President Franklin Roosevelt after his calls to dump veteran Sen. Walter George who had opposed FDR’s attempts to pack the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hundreds of our state’s lawyers put partisan politics aside, as it should be in a judicial election, and branded Hunstein’s opponent for what he was: an unethical opportunist. Hunstein went on to win every one of Georgia’s 159 counties, thoroughly trouncing Wiggins.

Unfortunately, that shameless campaign won’t likely be the last time big money interests try to buy their own version of justice in our state.

Justice Hunstein’s unanimous election to lead our Supreme Court should be a reminder to us and to future political shysters: Georgia voters, are certainly a mostly conservative lot but we’re not easily duped just because unscrupulous politicians cry “liberal” like the little boy who cried wolf.

• Robert Williams is Editor & Publisher of The Times. Email:

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