All APS defendants seeking to have judge removed

All remaining defendants in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial are asking that the judge be removed from the case, alleging that he improperly tried to influence the course of an appeal of one of his pretrial rulings.

The motion was initially filed by former regional director Tamara Cotman, one of the 13 defendants left in the case. It has since been joined by the others, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall. Hall’s lawyers filed their own motion.

The judge, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter, has suspended pretrial proceedings until the motions can heard by Fulton Superior Court Judge Shawn LaGrua. She was randomly assigned to task.

Baxter has not issued any order explaining his actions or responding to the defendants’ arguments.

LaGrua, who has not scheduled a hearing on the matter, can remove Baxter from the case if she finds his actions created an appearance of partiality.

Baxter recently delayed the trial itself until Aug. 11. He ordered the delay in response to Hall’s request for time to receive treatment for her Stage IV breast cancer, which has spread to other parts of her body.

The new controversy involves a pretrial appeal filed by Cotman’s lawyer, Benjamin Davis. Cotman was initially indicted for conspiring to commit racketeering and influencing a witness. Last year, she went to trial on the witness-influencing charge and was found not guilty.

After the acquittal, Davis asked Baxter to dismiss the remaining racketeering charge on double jeopardy grounds. Baxter rejected that request and called the motion frivolous. When Davis appealed that ruling to the Court of Appeals, Fulton prosecutors asked the court to dismiss the appeal.

In a recent order, the appeals court declined to dismiss Cotman’s appeal. It also included this footnote: “In an effort of full disclosure, we note that the trial court made multiple phone calls to the clerk of the Court of Appeals inquiring as to the timetable of our consideration of the appeal and the state’s motion to dismiss, and urging quick action thereon.”

On Tuesday, Davis said that while he held Baxter in high regard, he found his actions troubling.

“When I got that order, I was just dumbfounded,” he said. “Judges are prohibited from trying to contact a judge on the Court of Appeals or trying to communicate with a judge through the clerk’s office. It’s extremely troubling. Nobody has an excuse for why a judge should do such a thing.”

Attorney Gerald Griggs, who represents former Dobbs Elementary teacher Angela Williamson, agreed. “We believe that any type of inappropriate contact with the Court of Appeals prevents us from having a fair trial,” he said.

Other defendants joining the recusal motions include former regional supervisors Michael Pitts and Sharon Davis Williams; former principal Dana Evans; former assistant principal Tabeeka Jordan; former testing coordinators Donald Bullock and Theresia Copeland; and former teachers Pamela Cleveland, Shani Robinson and Diane Buckner-Webb.

Georgia’s code of judicial conduct prohibits judges from engaging in conversations about pending matters outside the presence of the parties involved or their counsel, except in limited circumstances. One exception allows judges to participate in such conversations when there are “administrative purposes or emergencies that do not deal with substantive matters or issues.” Even then, the canon says, the judge should promptly disclose these conversations to the parties involved.

The judicial code also says judges may consult with court personnel whose function is to aid judges in carrying out their judicial duties.

In the recusal motion filed on Hall’s behalf, her lawyers said the judicial code warrants Baxter’s dismissal.

“There is a reason why the Court of Appeals went out of its way to note (Baxter’s) multiple communications attempting to influence the course of Ms. Cotman’s appeal,” Hall’s motion said. “Clearly, it found those contacts highly irregular. More than that, the contacts were a straightforward violation of the Court of Appeals’ rules.”