The three candidates seeking to serve as a Fulton County Superior Court judge in a rare open race appeared at a May 2 candidate forum in Sandy Springs.

Kevin Farmer, Fani Willis and Bobby Wolf – all currently working as prosecutors – staked out some differences in experience and approach as they head toward a nonpartisan May 22 election. And they got a test in making quick judgment calls thanks to a quirky audience question that asked each of them an unusual hypothetical question about being a crime victim.

From left, attorney Manny Arora, who organized the judge forum, introduces candidates Kevin Farmer, Fani Willis and Bobby Wolf on May 2 at the Huntcliff River Club in Sandy Springs. (John Ruch)

The forum drew about 35 attendees to the clubhouse of the exclusive Huntcliff community, overlooking the Chattahoochee River in the city’s north end. The event was organized by Manny Arora, a local resident and criminal defense attorney concerned that few people know the importance of Superior Court judges or how uncommon is the chance to vote for one in a competitive race.

Superior Court judges handle major criminal and civil cases, including felony crimes, divorces, property disputes and lawsuits involving state agencies. Arora noted that such decisions could affect anyone’s life. And, he said, the open race is a “very rare animal” – he recalled only about three such races in his 25 years as an attorney. Typically, he said, judges announce retirement very early in their term so that the governor, by law, can appoint a well-connected successor. But in this case, incumbent Judge Tom Campbell is leaving soon enough – though not until year’s end – to trigger the election.

The candidates

Farmer and Wolf boasted local community connections, while Willis had the highest public profile as the lead prosecutor on the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal case. They all claimed diverse legal experience, and all criticized the Fulton County Superior Court system, especially for judges who let cases pile up, and pledged to do better.

Farmer is a 35-year resident of Sandy Springs and Riverwood International Charter School grad. He started his legal career as a Fulton County public defender, then practiced civil law in a Dunwoody office, and currently serves as a Clayton County prosecutor, a job he says he took to round out his experience to be a judge. He said he has handled more civil cases than the other candidates, and is the only one who has gotten defendants both acquitted of murder as a public defender and convicted as a prosecutor.

“I don’t have to learn that on the job,” he said of divorce cases as one example. He also frequently displayed a sense of humor, joking, “If you elect me, it’ll cut my commute in half.”

Fulton County Superior Court judge candidates, from left, Kevin Farmer, Fani Willis and Bobby Wolf await the start of the May 2 forum at the Huntcliff River Club in Sandy Springs. (John Ruch)

Willis said she wanted to be a judge since her father, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., took her to the job with him. In Atlanta, she started practicing a wide variety of law at a small firm where another lawyer was future Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. She then worked at the city of Atlanta on code enforcement cases, followed by 16 years prosecuting major crimes for Fulton.

“I submit to you, I’ve tried more cases than these two gentlemen behind me,” Willis said. She added that includes bad experiences with judges who are disrespectful, slow to handle cases and offer different treatment to people of different classes. “Lady Justice should be blind. That’s disgusting to me,” Willis said of the alleged unequal treatment.

Wolf, a Buckhead  resident, said he was raised in Sandy Springs, attending Spalding Drive Elementary and North Springs Charter High. He has worked as a prosecutor 26 years in Fulton, Cobb and most recently Gwinnett County. He claimed “diversity of experience” in the law and outside the courtroom, including as immediate past president of the Garden Hills Civic Association.

While acknowledging the law “isn’t a factory,” Wolf said at Fulton he helped create a management system to speed cases along, and said the better systems of Cobb and Gwinnett have lessons he can bring to the bench. “So often I hear, ‘Well, that’s just the way it’s done in Fulton County,’” he said.

Trading criticisms

The candidates largely agreed on Fulton Superior Court’s problems, but not on each other’s ability to deal with it. Farmer and Willis particularly targeted Wolf for criticism.

Farmer said that Wolf confused the role of a judge with that of a prosecutor in describing the job as “protecting victims,” and said Wolf’s claimed diversity of experience is really just “diversity of geography” – doing the same job in different places. “You don’t want a judge with a fixed mindset,” Farmer said, suggesting that Wolf would think in prosecution terms.

Willis expressed doubt about Wolf’s lessons in other jurisdictions, saying Cobb courts are much smaller than Fulton’s and that his local experience is lacking. “You have to live in the problem to know how to deal with the problem,” she said.

Wolf did not respond directly, saying, “I have the utmost respect for my opponents. I’m not going to say anything negative about them.” But in answer to an audience question, he said he understands applying the law fairly and that he is as proud of some cases he declined to prosecute as he is some he won convictions on. “It’s never been that hard for me to do the right thing,” he said.

The candidates also disagreed on how much change they can make in the courts. Farmer and Willis generally agreed that they could run their own courtrooms well, but likely could not alter the overall system. Wolf suggested the time might right for newer judges to band together and leverage some kind of reform.

Hypothetical rulings

One audience member – he declined to give his name afterward – surprised the candidates by posing each of them a unique hypothetical question about an elaborate and mysterious crime. The gist was to see how they handle judgment calls on the fly.

Wolf was asked how he would handle a high-schooler hired to do his yard work who then got high and kicked in a door. Wolf delayed a bit by saying it’s a good question because judges must be decisive. He then answered that he would talk with the teen about better choices rather than making it “something hanging over his head for five or 10 years,” while adding if he handled it as a judge he might have to be more strict.

Willis faced a rapidly changing scenario initially involving her dog being found run down in the street. After she asked for more facts and was told a neighbor hit the dog, she said, “I’m reporting the neighbor immediately to police for animal cruelty.” When the questioner suddenly shifted the scenario to a 3-year-old  being run down, Willis suggested in that case, she might be the one on the legal hook for letting a young child roam wild.

Farmer’s question involved contractors breaking into his house, but not stealing anything. “I think it was the professor in the library with the lead pipe,” he joked in an allusion to the mystery board game “Clue.” He then did a quick legal analysis, saying it could variously be considered burglary, criminal trespass or a civil lawsuit matter. “I’d call the police and say, ‘Y’all come over because I want some fingerprints taken,” he said.

Not so hypothetical for would-be judges who might handle murder cases, another questioner asked their positions on capital punishment. All three cautiously said they would uphold and obey state laws, which authorize the death penalty, though Farmer added, “I’m not a fan [of capital punishment], personally.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.