ATLANTA — A divorce lawyer who raised no campaign cash and did little public campaigning to support her own bid for the Georgia Supreme Court has forced Justice David Nahmias into a Nov. 30 runoff.
Nahmias, who was appointed to the bench in 2009, captured 48 percent of the vote with 100 percent of precincts reporting in the three-way race, just shy of the majority vote needed to avoid a runoff. He is seeking his first full six-year term.
The former U.S. Attorney was able to stave off Atlanta lawyer Matt Wilson, who captured only 17 percent of the vote despite loaning his own campaign more than $160,000.
But Lawrenceville lawyer Tamela Adkins managed to land a spot in the runoff by getting 35 percent — more than 725,000 votes — without launching any visible campaign.
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“This one’s a head-scratcher,” said Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist.
Nahmias, 46, campaigned for months to build support across party lines after Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed him to the bench in August 2009 to replace retiring Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears.
He has highlighted his Republican credentials as a former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and then as Atlanta’s top federal prosecutor following his 2004 appointment by then-President George W. Bush. But he also reached out to left-leaning plaintiff’s lawyers and won endorsements from Democratic legislators.
Adkins, 47, finished third in a 2008 Court of Appeals race with the backing of several prominent attorneys. But this time around she skipped campaign events, rarely talked to the media and didn’t set up a website.
The only significant change she seems to have made was listing her name as Tammy Lynn Adkins instead of Tamela L. Adkins.
Adkins said Wednesday her approach wasn’t so much a campaign strategy as it was an economic necessity. She said she couldn’t afford to take time off from her law practice, and she wanted to rely on the name recognition she built during the 2008 race. But she said she planned to jump-start her efforts during the next three weeks.
“I’m perfectly willing to hit the ground running,” she said. “I intend to do my best at this point. I feel like the state has said, ‘Yes, we would be interested in electing you.’ And I’m going to honor that, so I’m going to start campaigning.”
Adkins, who specializes in custody battles, has never argued a case before the Georgia Supreme Court. But she said she’s earned the trust of attorneys and judges across the state and hopes to represent the “everyday Georgian” if elected.
“I would love this job,” she said. “And because of my 18 years of trial experience representing regular people in Georgia, I believe I’m perfect for the Supreme Court. They need me on the court, representing average people.”
Nahmias, too, is gearing up for a runoff that will likely attract very low turnout.
“We would have liked to get 30,000 more votes to end it yesterday,” he said. “But it’s a three-candidate nonpartisan race toward the end of a very busy and long ballot, and our race got virtually no media attention. Our hope is that the voters will have a very clear choice after they learn about my experience.”
An Atlanta native, Nahmias moved to Washington following the Sept. 11 attacks to serve as one of the Justice Department’s leading terrorism prosecutors. He returned to Atlanta in 2004 as U.S. Attorney for north Georgia, overseeing a range of high-profile cases.
“It’s a very important election for the future of the justice system, and voters need to make their choice based on who has the strongest qualifications to serve them as a justice on their court.”
Election watchers called the runoff one of the most surprising results of an otherwise predictable night in Georgia.
Nahmias may have been hurt partly because his last name seemed unfamiliar to some voters, said Swint, the KSU professor. And he said Adkins might have benefited from voter fatigue because her name appeared first in the down-ticket three-way race.
“It could be an alphabetical order issue,” he said. “They’re at the very end of the ballot and voters just want to get out of there.”
University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said Republican female voters in particular might have sided with Adkins, partly because there were no female candidates on the GOP ticket for statewide offices.
“By the time they got all the way down the ballot, that Supreme Court race may have been their first chance to support a female candidate,” he said.