By Amy Wenk
A battle is under way for a Fulton County Superior Court judgeship this election.
By Election Day, Nov. 4, voters across Fulton County will decide between incumbent T. Jackson Bedford Jr. and Keisha Lance Bottoms for the four-year term.
The Fulton County Superior Court is Georgia’s busiest trial court of general jurisdiction. Its 19 judges preside over civil, major criminal and domestic relations cases, as well as administrative appeals. The court also offers three divisions that provide specialized services: the Diversionary Drug Court, the Family Division and the Business Court.
Bedford has 23 years as a trial lawyer and 12 years as a Superior Court judge, having been first elected in 1996. He said he is passionate about his job and feels his performance justifies his re-election.
“I think that my commitment to the judicial system and my commitment to the profession make me uniquely qualified,” the 64-year-old said. “I don’t think the people of Fulton County would be well served by losing my experience. You can’t put that into economic terms, obviously, but you have got somebody that has an incredible track record. I have a very low reversal rate, and I have handled a lot of very high-profile cases with dignity and professionalism.”
Bedford, a Vietnam veteran, emphasizes his experience in the courtroom. Besides trying thousands of cases, Bedford was a member of the four-judge team that created the Family Division of the Fulton County Superior Court to “de-adversarialize domestic litigation and save children from the scars of divorce.”
In 1986, he started the Sole Practitioner/Small Firm Division of the Atlanta Bar Association, which has been copied across the nation.
He also notes his commitment to community service. Bedford founded the Atlanta Santa Project in 1993 and dresses up as Santa each year to visit children in shelters and hospitals such as Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston.
In addition, the judge has served on numerous boards and organizations, including being president of the Atlanta Bar Association and president of the Emory Law Alumni Association.
He said he has succeeded in bringing an air of professionalism and integrity to the courtroom.
“My goal is to have people respect the system and respect the court,” said Bedford, who grew up in Opelika, Ala. “One of the reputations I have … is that I run a tight ship. That is, I expect everyone to do their job and to do it right.”
He criticized his opponent for her lack of trial experience and the way she has politicized the election, which by law is nonpartisan.
“She has sworn under oath to the judicial nominating commission that she has not appeared as a lawyer in federal, state, superior or local courts in the last five years,” Bedford said. “She has never made a decision involving the lives of people in the sense of child custody. She’s never made decisions involving matters that would affect a person going to prison for life or not. Those are all decisions I have made and made them very well.”
Bottoms defended her experience, saying: “I think the great part about my background is that I have experience in a number of areas. I’m the best person for the job. My experience speaks for itself. I have been one of the youngest serving magistrates for Fulton County for the past six years. I have been appointed year after year because of the good job I have done.”
As far as politicizing the campaign, Bottoms said: “Well, our election is a nonpartisan election, but, per the judicial qualifications rules, you can refer to yourself in a partisan manner. I’m not ashamed of my party affiliation,” which is Democratic.
Bottoms, who has 14 years as a lawyer and six years as a part-time magistrate judge for Fulton County, said she is running for the judgeship to offer the community “an opportunity for something better.”
“The theme of my campaign sums it up: a better court for a better community,” said the native Atlantan, who grew up in Collier Heights. “Superior Court impacts so many parts of our lives that I think it is important you have people on the bench that sincerely have an interest in what is best for the community and also people that have the ability and the temperament to administer justice fairly, with integrity. I possess those qualities.”
Bottoms, a past board member of the YWCA of Atlanta and a current trustee of Ben Hill United Methodist Church, said she has specific reasons she challenged Bedford.
“The No. 1 complaint that I have heard of in the community … is that citizens complain about the length of time that it takes for cases to be moved in Fulton County,” said Bottoms, whom Outstanding Atlanta named one of the 10 Outstanding Young People of Atlanta in 1997. “The second thing citizens complain about is the revolving door of the Fulton County Jail. When someone has been a victim of a crime, they feel like justice delayed is justice denied, and rightfully so.”
Her major criticism of Bedford is that “he has one of the worst case backlogs of any judge in Fulton County.”
She said she would improve on that simply by showing up and working each day, “not just when the cameras are on for the high-profile cases.”
“Well, Judge Bedford is not a revolving door,” Bedford said in response. “I don’t look at people as being just numbers moving through. I try to make sure that I understand each and every one of them. I can play the ‘let them out’ game, but that is not where I come from philosophically, because I believe in justice and I believe in justice for everybody involved.
“It is a very difficult situation. It is not easy, and it doesn’t lend itself to sound bite. I have had a large caseload, but I have worked it down, which means that I work harder than anybody, and I don’t mind saying that.”
Bedford also said that the jail is too small and that the caseload is a systemic problem.
“I know how to run a case because I have been doing it for 35 years,” he said. “Now somebody that has never tried a case, and that is my opponent, Keisha Bottoms, she hasn’t got a clue. For her to sit there and say when the lights are off, I am doing something else, that is absolutely absurd.
“High-profile cases are the most demanding cases you can try. The reason that I say, and am proud to say, that I handle high-profile cases is because I handle them with great professionalism and dignity and with fairness and justice.”