Democrats oppose bills to single out Berrien judgeships as nonpartisan

    Rep. Penny Houston, a Nashville Republican, wants to make two judgeships in Berrien County nonpartisan. Democrats say the change should be made statewide. Georgia House of Representative photo

    A pair of bills making judgeships in rural Berrien County nonpartisan ran into opposition from House Democrats who argue all local judges should be free of party affiliation.

    Many judicial roles – like superior court judges and the state Supreme Court – are already nonpartisan statewide, but when it comes to magistrate and probate judges, lawmakers have been taking them up county-by-county. The perennial bills regularly stir up controversy.

    In Berrien County, the bills make the roles of magistrate judge and probate judge nonpartisan. House lawmakers also recently made Twiggs County judgeships nonpartisan, but only after Republican Speaker David Ralston cast a rare vote to muster enough support.

    “I just want to tell you that we went 85% for Kemp in the election so I promise you I’m not trying to pull anything on you. I want fair for everybody,” said Rep. Penny Houston, a Nashville Republican and the sponsor of the bills.

    But Democrats, who have increased in numbers under the Gold Dome, say they aren’t worried about that. They argue that if a nonpartisan judgeship is right for one county, it should be right for all counties statewide.

    “We should do them all the same way,” said House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, a Luthersville Democrat. “We shouldn’t do it a county at a time … Let’s do it all or nothing.”

    House Bill 568, sponsored by Powder Springs Democratic Rep. David Wilkerson, would make magistrate and probate judgeships nonpartisan offices  statewide. That bill was introduced in March and has gone nowhere.

    Houston said she agreed all judges should be nonpartisan and pledged to sign onto such a proposal next year.

    “But right now, we’re just trying to get what the people wanted in my district and trying to have fair elections,” the south Georgia lawmaker said. “Everybody in the courts should be treated equal.”

    The Berrien County bills passed Tuesday with 100-to-57 and 98-to-59 votes.

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.