Lopez, 36, was an Atlanta corporate lawyer when his mentor, Judge J. Antonio DelCampo, DeKalb’s first Hispanic judge, nominated him to be a judge and Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed him to the bench in August 2010.
“Until that moment I had never thought about being a judge,” he said.
Dionne McGee, a former prosecutor with the DeKalb Solicitor General’s Office, is seeking to unseat Lopez.
McGee, 38, says she is the more experienced attorney, with 10 years of prosecutorial experience. Before coming to DeKalb, she worked for the city of Atlanta and the State Personnel Administration negotiating contracts.
“When I decided to run, he had been on the bench for a year,” she said. “I have prosecuted over 10,000 cases since 2000.”
McGee says her campaign is not a personal attack on Lopez.
“He is a really nice guy,” she said. “He has a lovely family, but I have more to offer. DeKalb deserves a choice.”
McGee admits that running against an incumbent is an uphill battle but doesn’t think it is impossible.
She said that there are people who think she is crazy to run.
“They say I am wasting my time challenging an incumbent,” she said.
She says she is challenging Lopez, who was born in Puerto Rico, because if an open seat came along, other African-American lawyers would run, making it more difficult to stand out.
“I can differentiate between he and I,” she said.
Historically, DeKalb voters do not remove incumbent judges from office unless they disgrace themselves, like State Court Judge J. Oscar Mitchell did in 1960 when he cuffed and shackled the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the DeKalb Courthouse and sentenced him to four months of hard labor in the Georgia State Prison at Reidsville for “a probation violation for driving in Georgia with an Alabama license.” Time Magazine at the time said Mitchell’s action “reeked of redneck justice.”
In 1980, Clarence Seeliger defeated Mitchell, placing him in the annals of history once again.
Seeliger, who is still a Superior Court judge and is running unopposed on July 31, said he took on Mitchell who had been in office for 30 years for his insensitive handling of African-Americans in his courtroom and because he refused to hire any professional African-Americans in the courts. The last straw was when Mitchell berated and called one of his clients a welfare queen in court.
McGee joined the DeKalb Solicitor’s Office in January 2009 when James was the solicitor. She became a senior prosecutor under Boston and resigned on March 30 to concentrate on her campaign.
Neither of her former employers endorsed her. McGee said the only endorsement she cares about is that of the voters and didn’t ask for her former bosses’ endorsements. She was surprised that they have thrust themselves into the race.
“It’s very disappointing that they elected to endorse him when they should have stayed out of the race,” she said. “I think she [Boston] should have stayed neutral. Why would you use your influence as a district attorney to sway a State Court judge race?”
James, who said he “enthusiastically endorsed” Lopez, calls him a good judge.
“He has done a lot of great things since he has been on the bench,” James said, singling out the DUI Court that Lopez runs.
“That court turns around the lives of people,” James said.
He also points out that Lopez runs the state’s only Spanish-language court.
James said he has only known Lopez for the two years that he has been on the DeKalb bench. “I feel what is in his head and what is in his heart,” James said.
The district attorney doesn’t try cases in State Court, and James says he sees no problem with him endorsing a judge.
“I am concerned about good government and having a good criminal justice system,” he said. “If I see someone doing a good job, it’s my duty to stand up and say so. If I keep my mouth shut, what does that say about me.”
Dr. Tom Coleman, a retired deputy commissioner for Juvenile Justice, says McGee is a very bright and articulate lawyer.
“She is a product of DeKalb County,” he said. “She understands the community from which she comes. That’s the same community she would be serving as a judge.”
McGee went to law school with Coleman’s son and worked with his daughter, who is also an attorney. He said McGee has been a family friend for years.
He said that it’s important to show mercy when you pass judgment.
“Judges are more effective when they can do that,” he said.
‘Our professional ranks are new’
When DelCampo resigned from the bench seven months after his arrival, Lopez became DeKalb’s and Georgia’s only Hispanic State Court judge. Serving with him on the seven-member DeKalb State Court bench are two white males, two white females, an African-American female and an Asian judge.
Lopez came to the mainland at age 6. His family settled first in Augusta and relocated to Atlanta in the late 1980s when his father, a civil engineer, was working on the General Motors plant in Doraville.
He says that Hispanics in Georgia today are where African-Americans were 35 years ago, with few people on the bench, in elected office and in professional jobs.
“Our professional ranks are new,” he said, adding that this is a banner year for Hispanics running for office statewide. “We have 12 Hispanics running statewide for state representatives and judges.”
On the campaign trail, McGee stresses that she grew up DeKalb County and is a graduate of Redan High School.
Why run against the county’s and the state’s only Hispanic judge?
“I don’t think people should settle for a judge that was appointed,” she said.
McGee also applied for the appointment that Lopez got but didn’t make the short list that the Judicial Nominating Committee sent to Perdue.
“I didn’t have the political connection to get the appointment,” she said.
McGee lives in Lithonia with her husband, Kevin, and two daughters. She is a member of the board of governors of the Georgia Bar Association and is the new president of the DeKalb Law Association, made up primarily of DeKalb’s African-American lawyers.
If she wins, McGee says she would lobby for a court calendar dedicated to child abandonment cases and would open up the courts to the community, especially to 17- to 25-year-olds, in the hope that it could be a deterrent. She said she would host community symposiums with judges.
“A lot of people don’t understand what goes on in the court,” she said. “I want to allow people to come to the court to observe the court in action.”
An efficient courtroom
Lopez says his two years on the bench have turned out to be one of the most rewarding jobs he has had and that his opponent cannot point to one bad thing he has done.
He says he has been saving lives with the DUI Court and is graduating hard-core alcoholics who are finding the structure and support to embrace sobriety.
“We deal with serious alcoholics,” he said. “We can put them in jail but jail doesn’t treat alcoholism. They get right out and go get a drink.”
Statistics show that 80 percent of people who get their first DUIs won’t get another. But the remaining 20 percent keep returning to court.
Lopez runs one of two DUI courts in DeKalb. Judge Alvin Wong, who started the court in 2004, runs the other. Both courts serve 85 to 90 people at a time.
Lopez says there are too many people in prison who need treatment. “This way we get them out of the system,” he said.
Supporters say that Lopez runs one of the most efficient courtrooms in DeKalb State Court. He has tried 30 criminal cases with juries and eight civil cases including medical malpractice. His prosecutor Hemath Digumarthi won an award for prosecuting 21 cases, the most criminal jury cases in DeKalb.
“My dockets are up-to-date,” he says.
Boston, who tries cases in State Court, calls him a fair and impartial judge,
“He is the kind of judge I want to keep,” she said. “He has tried more cases than any other judge. He moves his calendar. He works hard. I have nothing but praise for him.”
The impact that Lopez has made also is mirrored in the financial support he has garnered for his campaign.
His June 30 campaign disclosure report shows that he out-raised his opponent by $70,269. He raised $152,427 to her $82,158.
Even defense lawyers who don’t fare well in his courtroom gave him money.
“It just means that I am fair and that I follow the rule law,” he said.
Lopez is endorsed by Republicans and Democrats and he said he is especially proud of the endorsements of Boston and James, both Democrats. “I am a nonpartisan judge with bipartisan support,” he said. “They have seen my work.”
Boston, State Court Judges Eleanor Ross and Stacey Hydrick, and Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson were appointed by GOP governors.
Lopez points out that since 2002, every judicial appointment in DeKalb has been by a Republican governor.
“Does that mean that they are Republicans?” he asked.
Lopez was a board member of the Latino Elected Officials Association that sued Gov. Nathan Deal over Voter ID issues.
“And he still appointed me,” he said.
Lopez, a 10-year county resident, lives in Decatur with wife Zulma and three kids.
He said that all of his decisions have been affirmed by the Court of Appeals.
“It has not reversed me,” he said. “I have had 11 go up and all were affirmed.”
Lopez said he has fallen in love with State Court because he still has the opportunity to reach people before they commit a felony.
“In Superior Court, you don’t have a lot of options,” he said.
“Bring the right evidence according to the law. I believe in treatment, diversion, and a chance to redeem themselves.”