May 2016

Roderick Bridges. Handout Photo 3-4-2016
Roderick Bridges. Handout Photo 3-4-2016

Under Article Six, Section Three of the United States Constitution, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” The Religious Tests Clause made good sense when it was passed. The Framers had in mind various Test Acts that were a part of British and colonial political life, whose purpose was to exclude from office anyone not a member of the Anglican Church. The required oaths meant that government officials had to swear that the monarch of England was the head of the church. In Silverman v. Campbell, 486 S.E.2d 1 (1997), the South Carolina Supreme Court held that a provision in the South Carolina Constitution providing that “[n]o person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold office under this Constitution,” was not enforceable.

This all makes good sense. It should not matter if a State Court Judge is a Druid, a Jew, an atheist, or a Christian. A judge should apply the law to the facts and reach a decision as dictated by the Constitution and various statutes. I thought this was all settled back in the eighteenth century when Charles Pinckney, from South Carolina (South Carolina!) proposed the Religious Tests Clause at the Constitutional Convention. Well, yes and no.

It is perfectly legal for judicial candidates to use religion to pander to their heart’s content, even if that campaign technique violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the religious tests clause.

In a DeKalb County Judicial Election,Roderick Bridges is making much of the fact that he is a Christian while the incumbent, Judge Dax Lopez, is a Jew. Mr. Bridges is taking some heat for this campaign’s tactic (from those liberal media elite media sources I peruse). Of course, Mr. Bridges is perhaps uniquely entitled to use religion in his campaign, since according to his website, he actually has the endorsement of “Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior”.

In some sense, there might be some value in having more judges like Roderick Bridges. As an advocate who sometimes is pressed into making an argument with little support in precedent, it might be good to preface my argument, with “Your Honor, let me bless you with an argument that the Lord has laid upon my heart.” Never mind the what the Supreme Court says, how could a judge endorsed by God possibly reject an argument that was dictated by his most powerful backer? Surely, no person would claim that God had authored something that that person actually thought up — not to win a case or something like an election.

In this election year, in this State, I am not at all shocked that such a campaign tactic is being used. I am actually astounded that it doesn’t happen more. The problem with this particular tactic is that Mr. Bridges has tried it in a county where many of the voters read. If he brings me on as a campaign advisor, I could direct him to a handful of counties where he can use his brochures as part of a pathway to a successful campaign. And I can give him my list of Facebook friends I have unfollowed to elicit campaign contributions.

I meant to write a post on this topic at the end of the legislative session. Very late in the game, the Georgia General Assembly radically changed Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Commission, the ethics watchdog agency for Georgia judges. Shortly after these changes were made, the head of the JQC very publicly resigned.

I have mixed feelings about the changes. And, full disclosure, I was amicus counsel on a fairly public JQC matter last summer. At times, the JQC acted a bit heavy-handed in they way they dealt with some judges. And, as I’ve commented here in the past, the agency had a certain Star Chamber quality to it.

However, they did fine work over the years. And, as a result of their stronger years, there are whole circuits that are not only more pleasant places to be, the Georgia bench as a whole seems somehow more advanced than it was when I first started practicing. I hope that we are not returning to what the bench was like back in the early 2000’s.

And I wish that the solution had been something other than gutting it and politicizing its process. Ideally, its work would have been done more in the open. It remains to be seen where the JQC is headed. But I don’t think that matters look good.

Last week, I was able to help a young man stay in the country rather than be deported to a land where he has few ties. The young man is officially a citizen of a foreign country. But he is practically an American, having grown up in Georgia and with all of his family here. Several months ago, he was stopped in a small Georgia town by a local police officer. The officer found marijuana in his car. And my client was charged with a felony. He hired a lawyer who incorrectly advised him that he could enter a plea under Georgia’s First Offender Act and he would not be deported. The advice was wrong. And when my client hired me, he was one roadblock or stop sign violation away from detention and deportation. I filed a habeas corpus petition and began a series of meetings with the prosecutor. The habeas was granted and we ultimately arrived at a disposition that will likely work for him, according to his immigration lawyer.

This case is a reminder of what it means to be convicted of a crime. These cases are about far more than repaying your debt to society. A criminal conviction is a debt on which many default. In today’s New York Times, there is an editorial that discusses labels and the harm they do to citizens who have been convicted of crimes. Labels like “felon” or “ex-con” last long after the sentence is complete. And the potential collateral consequences of a conviction, even for some misdemeanors, is staggering.

In my case, it took my efforts, the help of an immigration lawyer,  a reasonable prosecutor, and a merciful judge to bLunt the impact on a young man and his family of a youthful mistake.