Augusta Superior Court Judge David Roper surprised more than a few folks this week when he announced his pending retirement.
Though the judge has more than six months until he makes his official exit in February 2017, the fact that it is coming in the middle of his term means that Governor Nathan Deal will be appointing his successor.
The conventional wisdom and just about every judicial insider I know agrees that nine-year veteran Augusta District Attorney Ashley Wright has the appointment locked up tight in her purse if she wants it. When I spoke to Ashley, she had just gotten the official news about Roper’s departure and she was not ready to commit one way or the other about the possibility of moving up.
When the retirement of Chief Judge Carlisle Overstreet was announced last January, there were some who believed Ashley would make the move then and declare her intentions to run for the seat. But the combination of leaving her own department in the hands of an unknown successor, and the knowledge that her good friend and capable colleague John Flythe (the eventual winner) was also interested in the position kept her in place as Augusta’s chief criminal prosecutor.
Even though we are just six months removed from Overstreet’s announcement, we have a whole new ball game with the gubernatorial appointment to the bench that accompanies Roper’s departure. Such a scenario allows Wright to assume the position without a costly and perhaps controversial political campaign, as well as guide the DA’s office into a planned and quiet transition with her own chief assistant (Hank Syms) taking over in the interim. More on that in a moment.
Other names mentioned as considering seeking the gubernatorial appointment, or being pushed that way, include former appointed Richmond County Solicitor Chuck Evans, former Richmond County GOP chair Sherry Barnes, Associate Columbia County Magistrate Judge Bobby Christine and current State Representative Barry Fleming.
Barnes would definitely be the dark horse here. While her “political pedigree” is solid, there is no inherent advantage to have a “placeholder” put into office, as she told listeners to my radio show she was happy to become. Barnes’ intention was to serve as a limited time appointment until the people could vote as to who they wanted to carry on, without giving any candidate the benefit of incumbency.
A noble notion to be sure, but as a life-long conservative, I did not live 35 years watching the Democrats in Georgia use such a system to their advantage just to “give it up on principle” as my team (the GOP) finally gained the advantage. At least not in the next 30 years. When Republicans have dominated Georgia state politics as long as the Democrats did, then feel free to bring up such charitable designs. We can have that conversation again in 2040.
Chuck Evans was appointed as the interim Richmond County solicitor general a few years ago when Harold Jones decided to run for the State Senate. As a white Republican, Evans was ousted the instant the county’s (majority Democrat) voters had the chance to cast a ballot in the very next election. While Chuck is a great guy, I really wish he would have stepped up and been a much more visible and vocal critic of the woman who beat him in that race, Kellie McIntyre. Since she took over as solicitor, I have been told she has quite simply run the office into the ground. Unlike Evans, who was visible not only running the office, but prosecuting cases as needed, McIntyre has been quite the lazy solicitor since she won the election. To her credit, she did reportedly pick up the pace a bit when she decided to attempt to trade up for a higher perch on the legal totem pole.
No doubt the lack of an obvious, educated critique of McIntyre’s dismal record helped propel her into the runoff for the state court judge position she is pursuing. Damn shame, but she will likely win that runoff against Bo Hunter. I want my conservative judicial officers to be more aggressive, and Chuck Evans really missed a great chance to be the kind of “insider watchdog” the criminal justice system needs.
Former Columbia County Chief Magistrate (and current associate under Chief Jason Troiano) Bobby Christine is always suggested as a slam dunk choice when it comes to any Superior Court judgeship, and rightfully so. His resume speaks for itself: a great public servant, a decorated war veteran and a dedicated family man.
Unfortunately for us, Bobby’s military career continues in the Reserves, and that commitment pre-empts his ability at the moment to become a full time Superior Court judge. His day in that position will come if he wants it, and I can think of few better that ascended before him.
When it comes to 10-year veteran State Representative Barry Fleming, we are really losing a treasure in Atlanta if he decides to make the move. Barry is by far the most valuable legislator in the CSRA right now. His tenure and Republican roots have put him squarely in the “tower of power” when it comes to state politics, and with the retirements of both State Senator Bill Jackson and State Representative Barbara Sims, we need his connections and seniority more than ever before. Barry’s stock in Atlanta will rise exponentially in the next four years with the turnover that will come as Nathan Deal is term limited out, and while he would make an excellent Superior Court judge, he would be one of eight.
There is only one Barry Fleming on our local legislative delegations, and the combination of his intellect, experience and political allies makes him by far the most valuable member of our legislative teams in 2017 and beyond.
All that said, it appears clearly the best choice for Roper’s position is Ashley Wright.
Eventually, the DA position would be filled permanently by an election that I believe Hank Syms may very likely want to sit out. I have been told by numerous people who have known and worked with Syms for years that while a very able prosecutor, he seems to not be at all interested in the administrative or political duties which also come with being district attorney. As chief assistant he would be named the interim by statute, at least that was what appeared to be the case at press time.
When directed to the proper spot in the Georgia Code to look up the time frame for the election to replace the interim DA, I was surprised to discover that the interim remains in place for the duration of the former DA’s elected term. In this case, that would be one month less than four years. If Syms truly does not want the job, he may have to take a temporary leave as chief assistant to facilitate another’s ascension.
But then, there is this: A special election would be triggered only if Ashley Wright resigns and withdraws before officially winning the November election. (Or perhaps before she is sworn in, if she never begins a new term officially, her replacement cannot be appointed for the remainder of a term that never began.)
I stumped several elections officials with these questions, so stay tuned. We may have an interesting subplot brewing.
Ain’t politics grand?