At least 21 Georgia judges have been disciplined by the state’s Judicial Qualifications Committee (JQC) or have resigned amid allegations of unethical conduct since April 2008. The high rate of action by the JQC has raised questions about corruption on the bench and the secrecy that shrouds JQC investigations.
According to the Committee, it received “the most complaints ever” in fiscal year 2010, with 488 judicial complaints. That compares to 376 complaints in FY 2009 and 373 complaints in FY 2008. The number of complaints in those years was elevated from previous years.
The April 2008 resignation of Alapaha Circuit Chief Judge Brooks E. Blitch III, whom the JQC publicly charged with levying unauthorized court fees, improperly ordering the expenditure of county funds and influence peddling, is seen as a tipping point that emboldened attorneys and other citizens to file more complaints. Blitch was later indicted on federal charges; he pleaded guilty and received three years’ probation and was fined $100,000 in December 2009. [See: PLN, July 2008, p.36; March 2009, p.48].
“I can tell you that persons, lawyers and litigants are feeling a lot more comfortable and a lot less apprehensive about filing complaints now,” said JQC’s vice chairman, Chattahoochee Superior Court Judge John D. Allen. “That may be due to the fact we have taken several public actions against judges. It may also be due to the fact the public no longer has the fear of the judiciary they had before about judges being untouchable.”
Despite the “highly unusual” number of judges who have left the bench under the dark cloud of a JQC investigation, the Committee downplayed the notion that judicial corruption is widespread. “I would not necessarily reach the conclusion that we have a bunch of bad judges out there based on this recent flurry,” nor is it “[a] matter of us ratcheting up any investigative efforts,” stated JQC chairman Benjamin F. Easterlin IV.
The JQC was established by Georgia’s constitution. With oversight by the state Supreme Court, the Committee is charged with holding judges accountable for “willful misconduct in office, willful and persistent failure to perform the duties of office, habitual intemperance, and conviction of a crime of moral turpitude, or for conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the judicial office into disrepute.”
The sanctions the JQC can recommend to Georgia’s Supreme Court are limited. It can reprimand a judge, either confidentially or in public, or issue a private warning. The maximum sanctions it can recommend are suspension or removal from office. Regardless of the gravity of the offence, the JQC cannot levy fines, send a judge to prison or strip a judge of his or her state retirement benefits.
Most governmental agencies are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The JQC, however, maintains a very secret bureaucracy. It only publicizes investigations against a judge when it issues charges, suspends or removes a judge from office, or issues a public reprimand. Complainants or judges who speak publicly about a JQC investigation before a complaint is resolved can be held in contempt by the state Supreme Court.
While others may speak about a JQC investigation upon completion, the JQC resists inquiries to view its investigative files. By its own confidentiality rules the JQC can open its files if a judge makes an investigation public, and it must suspend those rules if a subpoena is served in a criminal or civil proceeding against a judge.
The state attorney general appointed Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter to review allegations against Appalachian Circuit Superior Court Judge Oliver Harris “Harry” Doss, Jr. in December 2009. However, Porter was forced to close his investigation in July 2010 after the JQC refused to cooperate. He was advised by former JQC executive director Cheryl F. Custer that the Committee would fight any subpoena for its records; lacking resources, Porter gave up the fight before it began. The JQC still had an ethics investigation pending against Doss when he resigned in November 2009.
It is the JQC’s longstanding practice to “confront the judge” when faced with a valid complaint of alleged ethical violations “and give the judge the opportunity to resign,” said Easterlin.
“The concept is that if there’s a situation that we think merits a judge considering resignation, we’ll go to the judge and ask him to do that. If the judge is willing to do that, and willing to do that on our terms, which is generally [a promise] not to seek office again, that ends it,” explained Easterlin. “From our viewpoint, that’s efficient both for the public and the commission. First of all, it’s quicker. It doesn’t linger. Second, you don’t have the expense of a trial. If the ultimate goal is resignation, and we can get it without anything else, that’s ideal.”
Allen noted that the JQC’s “dire financial straits” requires such a policy. In 2011, the JQC’s operating budget will be just over $250,000. With the average JQC trial before the seven-member Commission costing $100,000, it cannot afford many trials.
Critics, however, point out that confidentiality in the JQC’s operations is called for in the Georgia constitution only in cases where a judge is under federal or state indictment. They also believe the public has a right to know and be informed about judicial complaints.
“Everybody resigning to cover up what happened does not strike me as good government. The public has a right to know, doesn’t it? ... In some of these cases, you’re talking about violations of the law, whether criminal or civil,” noted Stephen Bright, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. “Beyond that, these people are retiring with a full pension as if nothing happened, when, in fact, they may have engaged in very serious acts of misconduct. I think the public has a right to know this.”
For example, the public should know that some judges have little knowledge of the law and engage in abusive behavior and financial misconduct. Such was the case with Twiggs County Probate Judge Kenneth Fowler, who was removed from the bench by the Georgia Supreme Court on June 28, 2010. Fowler admitted he was “as lost as I could be” when he first took office; the Supreme Court found that he was “simply unwilling to live up to his legal and ethical responsibilities as a judge,” and that “[h]is ignorance of the law is inexcusable, and his abuse of the judicial office unacceptable. ...”
Among Fowler’s transgressions, he had informed criminal defendants that they, and not the prosecution, had the burden of proof in their case; he let defendants “buy” their way out of community service by paying into a fund that Fowler controlled; he insulted people in his courtroom and used racially-derogative terms; and he ordered the sheriff not to give prisoners good time credits toward their release.
Lookout Mountain Superior Court Judge Kristina Cook Connelly Graham kept her job but was publicly reprimanded in May 2010 for trying to intimidate prosecutors who were investigating another judge for election fraud. That judge, Carlton Vines, was being represented by Graham’s father – Vines was indicted but the trial resulted in a hung jury. The State Election Board then pursued civil charges against him; Vines agreed to resign in May 2009 and was fined $15,000. Graham was also accused of cursing agents with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) “without justification and in a manner unbecoming your office.” According to a complaint filed by GBI director Vernon Keenan, Judge Graham called one of the agents “a fucking, lying son of a bitch.”
It is cases like that which prompted former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher to say, “This is the worst rash of judicial misconduct I’ve ever seen. ... You can’t explain some of this conduct.”
Sources: Fulton County Daily Report, www.atlantaunfiltered.com, http://thesummervillenews.com, Atlanta Journal Constitution
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