Sparks Fly in Ga. Supreme Court Race

November 7, 2006

By the time the half-hour debate between the candidates for Georgia’s Supreme Court jolted to an end, there were no handshakes, not even the briefest smile between Justice Carol Hunstein and challenger Mike Wiggins.

There’s no love lost between the bitter opponents, and last Monday’s brutal Atlanta Press Club debate was no different.

Wiggins, a former Bush administration attorney, repeated a now familiar theme by accusing Hunstein of legislating from the bench. And he branded Hunstein a “justice for sale” because she accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from Georgia lawyers.

Hunstein fired back by questioning the more than $1.6 million infused by insurance companies and business groups into a group supporting Wiggins’ election bid. She defended attack ads her campaign launched last week that claim Wiggins threatened to kill his sister and was sued by his mother.

“When you’re a judge, it’s really important to know about your character and your integrity,” she said. “And everything that’s said in those ads is true. And it does reflect on his character.”

Wiggins called the ads “desperate and despicable” and huffed that it “raises questions about her temperament.”

“I don’t think it’s fair to my family, and I don’t think it’s fair to my sister,” said Wiggins, who said the case involved a family dispute over whether to remove his ailing mother from life support.

Hunstein, who was appointed to the bench in 1992 by then-Gov. Zell Miller, was the only of four sitting justices up for election to draw an opponent. Throughout the campaign, she’s tried to brandish her nonpartisan credentials, boasting the support of ex-Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes and former Republican Attorney General Mike Bowers.

“I’m not liberal, I’m not conservative, I’m not Republican, I’m not Democrat,” she said.

A cash-infused Wiggins campaign, though, has Hunstein’s camp nervous. Wiggins, the self-proclaimed conservative candidate, has no judicial experience but points to his time as a high-ranking attorney at the Department of Justice and later the Department of Homeland Security as evidence of his conservative credentials.

His campaign is backed by a group called the Safety and Prosperity Coalition, which has already spent more than $1.2 million on media buys. Wiggins has used those ads to portray Hunstein as a liberal who, in the words of one ad, “has made a habit of ignoring laws she doesn’t like.”

It’s an argument he repeated throughout testy 30-minute debate.

“Would you like a conservative judge who applies the law like it’s written by the Legislature or a judge who legislates from the bench?” Wiggins asked.

Hunstein’s campaign has fired back, airing TV ads claiming that Wiggins mother sued him and featuring a 1999 affidavit filed by Wiggins’ sister in which she accused him of telling her “I’m going to kill you.”

Wiggins said the case was a private matter involving a dispute over his ailing mother and said the judge ultimately decided in his favor.

“The final judgment in that case vindicated a son doing his duty,” he said.

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