Spotlight turns to next 2 judges from 6 candidates

Perhaps the most important political offices to be filled in coming days or weeks won’t be decided on by voters at all.

Instead, it’s Gov. Sonny Perdue in the driver’s seat, as he will appoint two people to fill the unexpired terms of resigned Superior Court judges Johnnie L. Caldwell Jr. and Paschal A. English Jr.

The field of candidates has been narrowed down to six, including three sitting judges in the circuit, two private practice attorneys and the current chief of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, Mack Crawford.

Following is biographical and other insights from each candidate gleaned from their formal application for the positions.

• Crawford, 56, of Concord, served eight terms in the legislature with his district encompassing parts of Pike, Upson and Lamar counties. He resigned his seat in August 2007 to become director of the Public Defender Standards Council.

Crawford has the least recent courtroom experience of the candidates, having not appeared in court in the past five years to represent clients, according to his application. Prior to that time, he practiced law in Zebulon in a variety of civil matters while also representing clients in criminal court.

• James R. Westbury Jr., 40, is an attorney with a private practice located in Griffin. His areas of practice include healthcare issues including fraud and abuse, defending local governments in civil rights and civil liberties litigation and also insurance coverage litigation.

Westbury is also a current member of the Griffin-Spalding Board of Education, elected to a four-year term in 2008.

• Carla Wong McMillian, 37, of Tyrone is a corporate business attorney with the Atlanta law firm of Sutherland, Asbill and Brennan. Her areas of litigation include automobile dealer and franchise cases, complex business litigation and professional malpractice defense.

McMillian in her application noted that pro bono cases have also been important to her, one such recent case being the representation of a Fayette County woman seeking full custody of a child from the child’s allegedly abusive father. McMillian said she was also involved in her firm’s representation of a former death row inmate.

McMillian indicated that three-quarters of her court appearances have come at the federal level, with 25 percent being in state courts.

• W. Fletcher Sams, 56, of Fayetteville is the sitting Fayette County State Court Judge, a position he has been continuously re-elected to since it was created in 1997.

Prior to taking the bench Sams spent time both in private practice including criminal defense matters, but also two separate stints as prosecutor including one term in which he served as the elected district attorney for the entire Griffin Judicial Circuit.

In that election, Sams defeated incumbent DA Johnnie L. Caldwell Jr., but in the following election Caldwell “returned the favor,” defeating Sams.

• Ben J. Miller Jr., 40, of Thomaston has been chief juvenile court judge of the Griffin circuit since July 2008. He served four years previously as a part-time associate juvenile court judge while also maintaining his private practice. Miller abandoned his private practice for the full-time juvenile court judgeship.

Miller also has served as municipal court judge for the city of Zebulon from April 2003 to July 2008.

• Robert A. Ruppenthal, 45, of Fayetteville is serving his third term in the elected office. Ruppenthal also serves as a fill-in judge for Fayette County Probate Court and previously has done so in Fayette County State Court.

Ruppenthal also operates his own private practice since his position as magistrate is a part-time job. He restricts his practice to civil matters including those involving individuals, families and corporations while also handling probate matters.

Since his election as a magistrate judge, Ruppenthal has declined to take any criminal defense or juvenile delinquency cases “to prevent any appearance of impropriety or appearance of a conflict with officers or deputies who come to me as magistrate judge.”

Each candidate had to fill out a questionnaire that asked several pointed questions. Each was asked, for example, how they would improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the legal system.

Among their replies:

• Crawford said such an effort “should begin with better communication and cooperation between the four judges and their respective staff members.” He also cited the need for the clerks of court in the four counties to have a “continuing cooperative effort.”

• McMillian said she would “encourage parties to try and reach a reasonable resolution early in the case and at other stages during and after discovery.” She also wants to “set trials promptly”

• Miller said a simple way for the judge to improve efficiency and court effectiveness is for the judge to review pleadings and motions prior to court hearings.

• Ruppenthal said improved communications between the judge and attorneys who practice in the court would improve efficiency and effectiveness in large part by implementing consistency and regularity in scheduling matters. He also wants to encourage pre-trial conferences on civil matters after mediation and also apply deadlines for negotiated pleas at calendar call in criminal cases to “encourage decisions prior to jury availability days.

• Sams said he would like the Superior Court to implement an effective criminal case assignment system in an effort to prevent “judge shopping.” Sams noted he uses a “fast track” system for civil cases in state court, and he wants to use the same procedure for civil cases in superior court.

• Westbury said judges can do more to keep cases moving toward trial, including ruling on motions in a more timely manner. Currently, some motions in state courts will “sit for periods exceeding a year,” Westbury said.