By ERRIN HAINES
ATLANTA - A coalition of civil rights and attorney groups says African-American judges are being replaced by white appointees in one of Georgia's most heavily populated black counties and called Thursday for Georgia's governor to fill vacancies with judges who reflect their communities' diversity.
The coalition, led by the Rev. Joseph Lowery, said black representation on the bench has decreased from 44 percent in 2002 to 30 percent. They say every African-American judge who has resigned or retired from Fulton County Superior Court replaced by gubernatorial appointment since 2002 has been replaced by a white appointee.
Fulton County is 44 percent African-American, according to the latest Census figures.
"We need fairness," said Lowery, head of the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda, as he stood on the steps of the courthouse. "Do the right thing. We're not here to ask them for favors. We're asking them for justice."
Gov. Nathan Deal is also a former judge now in his second year in office. His spokesman, Brian Robinson, said Thursday that Deal celebrates the state's diversity.
"Governor Deal, working closely with members of the Judicial Nominating Commission, seeks to appoint to the bench the most highly qualified candidates for the bench, whether it's in Fulton County or elsewhere in the state," Robinson said in a statement. "He's appointed African-Americans and other minorities to the important positions. Governor Deal takes into consideration the importance of diversity in his appointments, but his first priority is selecting first-rate jurists."
The coalition, which includes the Georgia Black Women Attorneys Association and the Gate City Bar Association, is revisiting an issue first raised more than two decades ago.
In 1988, state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, was one of 30 plaintiffs to sue the state board of elections in an attempt to change to disparity in the racial composition of the state's judiciary. The case was in federal court for six years before a settlement agreement was reached. The agreement was later rejected on appeal, but then Gov. Zell Miller began appointing black judges to Fulton County's superior and state courts.
Those gains have largely been lost, Brooks said Thursday. And although the judicial positions are elected offices, a governor's decision to seat a judge can often have the effect of a lifetime appointment.
"That incumbent will not get opposition," Brooks said. "Most lawyers will not challenge a sitting judge."
The Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys said they spoke to the governor earlier this year about a more inclusive nominating process. The group's political action chair, LaKeitha Daniels, said the issue is a matter of fairness, not race.
"We are here today to request directly that Gov. Deal turn his words into action and appoint women of color to his Judicial Nominating Commission," Daniels said. "Gov. Deal was given names months ago, and has yet to act on his promise."
It was for that reason that retired Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore said she waited until the end of her term to retire - deliberately denying the governor an opportunity for a gubernatorial appointment and guaranteeing an open election and a fair shot to her replacement.
A black woman was elected to replace her in 2008.
Moore said Thursday that the presence of diversity has a profound effect on the bench.
"There is an atmosphere of fairness when one walks into the courtroom and sees somebody who looks like them," Moore said. "When they walk into the courtroom and see a portrait of an African-American judge, knowing that somebody was here that looked like them, they say, 'Maybe I have a chance."'