Democracy Heroes and Threats often emerge from the same circumstances. Heroes trying to protect the justice system and the rule of law, too frequently, must endure withering criticism – and far worse – before they are vindicated. Here are two examples.
Pickens County, Georgia
In Pickens County, Georgia, County Attorney Phil Landrum stood up to an orchestrated local effort seeking to end the electronic counting of ballots and to open all ballots cast to public scrutiny, thereby ending the secret ballot, a long-time cornerstone of democracy.
The incident arose out of a Republican primary held this past May in which no one challenged the election results, the election had been certified, the election results were audited, and the election ballots sealed. Governor Kemp and Secretary of State Raffensberger were respectively nominated as the Republican candidates for the General Election.
Pickens County Republican leadership, however, wanted to eliminate the Dominion electronic vote tabulating machines that were used to count the paper ballots, and sought a hand recount. They also sought to make ballots previously cast “open public records” and to empower the local elections board to conduct elections and ballot counting as they saw fit. They then selected the Chair of the local Republican party to conduct that hand recount.
This effort fits within a nationwide election denial movement that seeks to return to the days of hand marked ballots, where voting only can be done in person on election day and all ballots are hand tabulated and hand recounted.
In Pickens County, dozens of residents packed the local Elections Board meeting to present their demand to unseal the paper ballots that had been cast, and conduct a hand recount of the Governor and Secretary of State races. Phil Landrum, the County Attorney for 21 years, researched the issue and advised the County that sealed election records were not subject to the Open Records Act and could not be unsealed except by the order of a judge of the Superior Court.
Orchestrated local fury was generated to pressure attorney Landrum to change his position, or in the alternative, to persuade the County to fire him. When the case came to court, local judges recused themselves. The Atlanta judge assigned to hear the case ruled that Landrum’s legal advice to the county was correct; sealed ballots were not subject to the state’s Open Records Act. The judge dismissed the petition.
Democracy worked because a County Attorney both read the law and stood by his oath to adhere to it, resisting the intense pressure to ignore his duty to protect rule of law.
Collin County, Texas
In Collin County, Texas, the reign of legal terror led by a District Attorney and a local judge was confronted and ultimately defeated.
The story begins when attorney, Suzanne Wooten, accomplished an unheard-of feat in Collin County’s 163-year history by defeating a sitting judge, Charles Sandoval, with 57% of the vote. Just a day after her victory, the good-old-boy network struck back when Sandoval approached District Attorney John Roach Sr., a DA with a history of prosecuting political opponents. Sandoval told Roach that Wooten could not have won without cheating, and that the DA needed to find the crime. The incumbent DA and the defeated judge, with the assistance of the Texas Attorney General’s Office, orchestrated a series of grand jury investigations. After 5 unsuccessful tries, the DA succeeded in having a sixth grand jury finally indict Wooten, her campaign consultant, and a wealthy Dallas couple involved in a custody fight.
Wooten was accused of taking a bribe, in the form of a campaign contribution, from Dallas couple David and Stacy Cary. David Cary was involved in a custody dispute with his ex-wife in a case that was pending in Collin County. The only problem with this prosecution was that 1) Judge Wooten did not know the couple; 2) they did not contribute to her campaign; and 3) when their case appeared before her as a sitting judge, she recused herself because she knew the lawyers on both sides of the case.
When the case came to trial, the judge refused to allow evidence about the five previous grand juries that refused to indict Wooten, nor consider evidence about the political genesis of the case generated by the defeated judge and his ally, the District Attorney.
After trial, Wooten accepted a sentencing “deal” of 10 years’ probation in exchange for an agreement not to appeal. This allowed her to focus on re-building her and her family’s life, without a threat of a long prison sentence adding to the enormous toll the relentless prosecution had taken.
David and Stacy Cary appealed their convictions and prison sentence and ultimately prevailed before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. After the Cary’s convictions were overturned, Wooten successfully filed a Habeas Corpus to establish her innocence.
A year later, she filed a lawsuit against Collin County for its pattern and practice of political prosecutions.
Even then, the County shamefully continued the fight by seeking to strike the expert testimony about their unlawful conduct towards Suzanne Wooten – an effort rejected by the Federal District Court. The County – dubbed by one publication as the most lawless county in Texas – then settled for $600,000.
The system ultimately worked for this Democracy Hero, but the battle she had to fight against officials who ignored the rule of law and their oath to the Constitution is chilling.