Ga. voters, don't kill independent oversight of judges

Former Superior Court Judge Amanda Williams of Glynn County was removed from the bench by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission. (AP)

Until recently, Georgia had a productive and politically independent Judicial Qualifications Commission, just as outlined in the state constitution. Over an eight-year period, the commission had removed more than 60 judges from the bench for breach of ethics, abuse of power or other misconduct.

In Fayette County, a judge was removed after discovery of a long-term affair with a public defender. In Brunswick, a judge was removed on charges of nepotism and favoritism, and after nationally embarrassing revelations that she had sentenced drug-court defendants to indefinite imprisonment and solitary confinement. In Murray County, a magistrate was removed after he told a woman that he would trade a legal ruling for sexual favors, then arranged to plant drugs in the woman’s car to discredit her after she publicly complained.

It’s important to stress how important the commission can be. Judges wield enormous and largely unchallenged power within their courtrooms, and as in every other aspect of human life, unchecked power is a perpetual temptation.

In addition, judges in Georgia are typically deeply entwined in the power structure of their communities, alongside state legislators and other elected officials. In fact, judges are often former legislators themselves who get appointed to the bench by governors as a reward for good behavior. In that kind of incestuous situation, an independent watchdog agency insulated from political interference is an absolute necessity.

However, under a proposed amendment that will go before the voters in November, the current JQC would be abolished and replaced. It would no longer be independent, and the three commission members now appointed by the state bar would instead be appointed by the speaker of the House, the lieutenant governor and governor. A total of five of the seven members would be political appointees, compared to just two today.

One of the co-sponsors of that legislation is state Rep. Johnny Caldwell of Griffin, who was forced to resign as a judge by the JQC in 2010 after revelations that he had sexually harassed a female attorney appearing before him.

In addition, companion legislation would close all future commission proceedings to the public. The public would not be made aware that a complaint had been filed, and it would not have access to the evidence unless the judge in question was found guilty. Proponents claim the secrecy is needed to protect the reputations of judges who are innocent, yet that’s a special privilege not extended to defendants in any courtroom in the state.

In short, the proposed constitutional amendment would inject the heavy hand of politics into a process in which politics should play no role. Even before its adoption, the antagonism of the political establishment to the commission’s work had become so intense and intimidating that the commission’s chair resigned in April.

“I cannot in good conscience continue to participate in a charade that offers the promise of judicial integrity when, in truth, the actions of others have rendered the fulfillment of that promise an impossibility,” Lester Tate of Cartersville wrote in his resignation letter.

The voters of Georgia are now being asked to validate that charade by adopting the proposed amendment. They should reject it overwhelmingly.