In Georgia, “state courts” are courts of limited jurisdiction that handle, among other things, the trial of criminal cases “below the grade of felony,”1 including cases involving traffic offenses. Georgia’s 70 state courts reportedly generated over $123 million in revenue during fiscal year 2012,2 $23 million more than all of the state’s superior courts and double the amount generated by probate courts or magistrate courts.3
The Georgia Council of State Court Judges has called the state courts collectively “the little giant of the state trial court system,”4 in part because “State Courts represent only 10% of the State Trial Courts and Judges, but bring in 35% of Total Revenues!”5 A large part of those revenues comes from the fines, costs and surcharges imposed on criminal defendants processed through the courts, who are frequently placed under the supervision of private probation companies (paying the companies for the privilege) until the fines and other costs attached to their sentences are paid.6
Fines and surcharges in Georgia are ordinarily regulated by a comprehensive statutory scheme that governs not only their amounts but also whether revenue is distributed to the county where the offense occurred or to various state funds. But after taking his seat on the Grady County State Court in 2002, Judge William Bass invented a fine with no authorization, statutory or otherwise. Judge Bass dubbed the fine an “administrative cost” and added it to defendants’ sentences on top of the state-authorized fines that he imposed.
These “administrative costs” ranged from $300 to $700 per case, adding hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in additional fines for defendants processed through the Grady County State Court. The “costs” amounted to approximately $296,711 in added fines between June 2011 and July 2012 alone, imposed on approximately 540 defendants, many of them indigent. Once the “costs” were added to defendants’ sentences, the defendants had the same obligation to repay the illegal “administrative costs” as they had to repay legitimate fines, and endured the same risk of having their probation revoked if they failed to pay. And because the “costs” were not authorized by state law, distribution of the proceeds was not regulated by state law and Grady County was able to keep all of the revenue.
The fines were illegitimate not only because they had no lawful basis, violating the principle of fair notice, but also because the judge attempted to leverage the additional funds for the county into a raise for himself, violating the principle of judicial impartiality. In a 2012 letter that began, “I need my salary raised to $60,000 per year,” Judge Bass boasted about the “extra time and energy” that he purported to spend to “contribut[e] more than $350,000 per year to the county,” and warned that “the next judge” might not be “willing” to “do that.”7 Later that year, the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission initiated proceedings against Judge Bass concerning a host of ethics violations,8 including “g[iving] the appearance that [a] salary increase was warranted by the amount of funds [that he] caused to be improperly collected by the State Court.”9
On March 25, 2013, the ethics proceedings resulted in a public reprimand, 60-day suspension, probation and an agreement not to seek re-election.10 Judge Bass was, however, allowed to remain on the bench for the remainder of his present term, which expires on December 31, 2014.11
Ryan Primerano is a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights (www.schr.org), and provided this article exclusively for Prison Legal News.
1 O.C.G.A. § 15-7-4(a)(1) (West 2013).
2 Ga. Council of State Court Judges, 2013 Hot Sheet 1, available at www.statecourt.georgiacourts.gov/files/ Final%20Hot%20Sheet%202013.doc (last visited Sept. 8, 2013).
5 Id. at 1-2.
6 See generally Hannah Rappleye and Lisa Riordan-Seville, “‘Cash Register Justice’: Private Probation Services Face Legal Counterattack,” NBC News (Oct. 24, 2012), available at http://investigations.nbcnews.com/_news/ 2012/10/24/14653300-cash-register-justice-private-probation-services-face-legal-counterattack (last visited Sept. 8, 2013).
7 Ga. Judicial Qualfications Comm’n, Notice of Formal Proceedings, Ex. A (Dec. 14, 2012), available at www.gajqc.com/news.cfm (last visited Sept. 8, 2013).
10 Ga. Judicial Qualifications Comm’n, Public Reprimand of Judge Bass 1-2, 8-9 (March 18, 2013), available at www.gajqc.com/news.cfm (last visited Sept. 8, 2013).
11 Ga. Judicial Qualifications Comm’n, Report of Disposition and Consent Order (March 25, 2013), available at www.gajqc.com/news.cfm (last visited Sept. 8, 2013).
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