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Local judges nominated for Court of Appeals

By Curt Yeomans and Jason Smith

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Two judges -- one from Clayton County and the other from Henry County -- are on the shortlist of candidates being considered to fill two vacancies on the Georgia Court of Appeals, Gov. Sonny Perdue's office has announced.

Clayton County Superior Court Chief Judge Matthew O. Simmons, 54, and Henry County State Court Judge Benjamin W. Studdard, III, 49, have been named as two of nine nominees to fill vacancies on the Court of Appeals, as a result of the retirement of Judge G. Alan Blackburn, and the death of Judge Debra H. Bernes.

The people on the shortlist have been nominated by Perdue's Judicial Nominating Commission, which interviewed candidates earlier this week, according to a statement from the governor's office.

"They look for qualified candidates who have a firm grasp of the law, and have demonstrated excellence in their profession, and are ready to take that next step," said Perdue spokesman, Ben Hames, in a telephone interview on Friday.

Studdard said judges on the Court of Appeals are elected by the voters in non-partisan elections, to serve six-year terms, except when vacancies occur during a judge's term in office.

In the case of a vacancy, the governor gets to appoint someone to fill the unexpired term, added Simmons.

Hames said eight officials, including Studdard, who were considered for a seat on the Georgia Supreme Court last year, were asked if they would like to be considered again for the Court of Appeals.

"Some wanted to be considered, and some did not, so that gave us four nominees," Hames said. "Then, we opened it up for nominations from the community, and those nominees were vetted by the Judicial Nominating Commission. That's how we got to the nine people we have on our shortlist."

Simmons, who has been a judge with the Clayton County Superior Court since 1993, was one of the people whose names came into contention through the nominating process this year. Hames said Simmons was nominated by Henry County Superior Court Judge Brian Amero.

Simmons said he was flattered, and honored, to be nominated by Amero, who Simmons said used to be an assistant district attorney in Clayton County several years ago. But, Simmons added, it was extra special to get the nod from the Judicial Nominating Commission, as well. "To get through that, it's a little tougher, so I'm really honored to be nominated by them," he said.

Simmons is a lifelong Clayton County resident, who grew up in Forest Park. He said he graduated from Forest Park High School in 1974, earned his bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Georgia in 1976, and earned his law degree from UGA in 1979.

Simmons returned to Forest Park in 1979, and began practicing law. He said he completed a "night school-type program," and earned a master's degree in laws-taxation, from Emory University in 1983. He also said he went on to serve on the Forest Park City Council from 1983 to 1986, and then, served as Forest Park's mayor from 1987 to 1991.

He said he does not want the people of Clayton County to think he is turning his back on them, because he is in the running for a seat on a higher court. "It's a great honor to be nominated for this position," he said. "I'm not unhappy with my job [in Clayton County]. I got nominated for the Court of Appeals, and this would be a significant promotion for me. If I was given the nomination, I was not going to turn it down."

In Henry County, State Court Judge Benjamin W. Studdard, III, has been a judge of the State Court of Henry County since the court was formed in January of 1999. Prior to his election in November of 1998, he practiced law in McDonough for more than 14 years.

The State Court judge said he would be the first person from Henry County to sit on the Court of Appeals, if he gets the nod from Perdue. In light of that fact, he said he feels "honored" to be on the shortlist for a seat.

"Twelve judges make up the Georgia Court of Appeals," Studdard said. "They hear appeals from superior courts, state courts, and juvenile courts. No one from Henry County has ever served on either the Court of Appeals, or the Georgia Supreme Court."

Studdard was also on the shortlist of individuals considered in 2009, for the Georgia Supreme Court. The seat ultimately went to former U.S. Attorney, David Nahmias.

The next step in the nomination process for the Appeals Court positions, Studdard added, lies in the hands of Perdue. "Gov. Perdue will now interview the nine finalists, and select two of them to serve," Studdard said. "All eight of the other nominees are highly qualified. The governor has a difficult task to perform, in choosing just two."

Perdue spokesman, Hames, said a time-frame is not yet in place for the governor to pick two judges to fill the vacancies. "That hasn't been decided, yet," Hames said. "We may have one [time-frame] early next week."

While Perdue mulls over the list of candidates and considers whom he will appoint, Studdard said he will continue focusing on his courtroom in McDonough.

"In the meantime, I'll keep doing the best job I can dispensing justice in the State Court of Henry County," he said.

In addition to Simmons and Studdard, other candidates announced by Perdue's office include: Fulton County Superior Court Judge Christopher S. Brasher; Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary E. Staley; Enotah Judicial Circuit District Attorney N. Stanley Gunter, and attorneys, Keith R. Blackwell, J. Robert Persons, Stephen Louis A. Dillard, and James P. Kelly, III.