Former Alpharetta judge was personal attorney for city prosecutor

Former Alpharetta Municipal Court Judge Barry Zimmerman presided over thousands of cases argued by a solicitor who had hired him to be her private attorney — a conflict of interest that may have led to a Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) investigation and the judge’s sudden retirement.

Zimmerman was a part-time judge and separately has a law practice in Norcross.

He resigned after a June JQC report found “reasonable cause” that he “violated the code of judicial conduct” without citing a specific case or cases. The report said he may have violated judicial rules by holding dual roles in some Alpharetta Municipal Court cases.

A separate finding indicates Zimmerman may have acted improperly by presiding over cases that were regularly presented by someone he represented as a lawyer in another jurisdiction.

In 2014, months after the start of his first term as Alpharetta’s chief municipal judge, Zimmerman represented Alpharetta Solicitor Fran Shoenthal in a civil matter, according to court documents.

Zimmerman did not return multiple phone calls or an email requesting comment. Shoenthal did not return messages relayed through her attorney.

Zimmerman and Shoenthal worked together in the municipal courtroom for eight years. As city solicitor, Shoenthal prosecuted cases in Zimmerman’s court including traffic tickets, DUI, minor drug offenses and disorderly conduct.

Alpharetta Municipal Court handled 9,376 cases in fiscal year 2022 or about 800 cases per month, Assistant City Administrator James Drinkard said.

Drinkard said unless Zimmerman and Shoenthal were out sick or on vacation, they were the judge and prosecutor for all cases in Alpharetta Municipal Court.

Zimmerman retired in July, after the JQC reported its findings. Shoenthal was replaced in April.

The JQC resolved its investigation against Zimmerman in June when he decided to step down from the bench. He agreed not to accept any elected or appointed judicial office in the future “in lieu of formal charges,” the JQC report states. The report said the agreement is “a fair disposition of the matter and is in the interests of justice.”

The investigation by the watchdog agency found reasonable cause that Zimmerman violated the code of judicial conduct by improperly representing “a party in a personal matter in another jurisdiction while the party regularly appeared before him … in Alpharetta Municipal Court,” the report said.

In addition to this reference, the report says that Zimmerman took “judicial action” in cases where he should have recused himself.

Without directly saying that Zimmerman was in some way involved as an attorney in cases that were presented in Municipal Court, the report cited a section of the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct on part-time judges that says judges “shall not practice law in the court on which they serve, or act as lawyers in proceedings for which they have served as judges.”

The JQC rules state that details uncovered by an investigative panel can be kept confidential.

Clark Cunningham, a Georgia State University professor of law and judicial ethics, said the JQC let Zimmerman off the hook and its investigative panel should have used its right to waive the confidentiality of information. According to JQC rules, this can be done if it’s “in the interest of justice and to protect the public.”

“I think it showed very poor judgment for the investigative panel and the JQC to allow him to resign with (an agreement) that sealed the record,” Cunningham said.

In 2014 and 2015, Zimmerman represented Shoenthal in court against her daughters over her late husband’s pension.

Elliott Shoenthal was a judge in DeKalb Juvenile Court who died in 2013. Before his death, he completed a form changing the beneficiaries of his pension to his two daughters instead of his wife but never filed the paperwork, said attorney Christopher Anulewicz, who represented the daughters.

Anulewicz said he was concerned at the time about Zimmerman’s conflict of interest.

“Representing a lawyer that appears in front of you (in court) is completely improper and clearly not permitted by the canons that govern judicial ethics,” Anulewicz said of Zimmerman.

Zimmerman was an attorney for Shoenthal in the trial court and appellate court, Anulewicz said.

The appellate case was decided in Shoenthal’s favor in the Court of Appeals of Georgia in 2015, documents show.

Shoenthal worked as a contractor for the city of Alpharetta since the early 2000s, Drinkard said.

Zimmerman was first appointed Alpharetta Municipal Court judge in 2014. The Charlotte native was reappointed in January to serve another four-year term. He was also a part-time judge in the Fulton County Magistrate Court for 42 years.

Due to the lack of details in the JQC report, Alpharetta has launched an independent investigation into Zimmerman’s conduct. City Administrator Robert Regus announced hiring Randy Rich of the Taylor English law firm to lead the investigation on July 11.

Alpharetta officials declined to comment on what the former judge’s actions might mean for cases he ruled on. And the JQC declined to comment beyond its published report.