The Georgia Supreme Court on Wednesday said it cannot yet decide whether to oust embattled Court of Appeals Judge Christian Coomer, and it handed him a victory by deciding he can’t be disciplined for alleged ethical breaches committed before his appointment to the bench.
Instead, the state high court asked the three-member hearing panel that recommended Coomer’s removal to review the case further and decide whether he acted in “bad faith” when he allegedly took advantage of an older client and violated campaign finance laws.
In its January recommendation, the panel that oversaw Coomer’s historic ethics hearing said the judge’s improper conduct and “steadily recurring abuse of positions of trust” warranted removal from office.
But the Georgia Supreme Court said Coomer’s actions before his time in the judiciary aren’t subject to discipline by the Judicial Qualification Commission, which brought three dozen ethics charges against the former state lawmaker.
A seven-day hearing into whether Coomer committed those ethics violations concluded just before Christmas. Coomer’s attorneys argued that while he made mistakes years before being appointed to the Court of Appeals, he deserved to remain on the bench.
“This man has a lifetime of good conduct and deserves to wear a robe,” Coomer’s attorney, Mark Lefkow, said in his closing arguments.
Coomer, a Cartersville lawyer, served as a state representative from 2011 until his appointment to the Court of Appeals in 2018. He has been voluntarily suspended with pay since January 2021, meaning he has received more than $350,000 from Georgia taxpayers while on leave.
In its ruling, the state Supreme Court said the hearing panel made “two critical legal errors” that prevented the high court from resolving the years-long saga. First, they wrote the JQC has no “jurisdiction” over conduct that occurs before someone becomes a judge or judicial candidate.
“The Code of Judicial Conduct simply has no application to conduct by people who are not yet judges or judicial candidates, even if they later become a judge or judicial candidate,” the ruling said.
The court also said while actions taken in a judicial capacity — “acting as a judge, not merely while a judge” — can warrant discipline regardless of good faith, actions taken outside one’s judicial capacity “warrant discipline only when taken in bad faith.”
“None of the counts against Judge Coomer allege any actions taken in a judicial capacity, and so, in order to prevail on those counts, the (JQC) would need to prove bad faith by clear and convincing evidence,” the opinion said.
Former JQC Director Chuck Boring said while he respects the justices and their decision on the jurisdictional issue, he strongly disagrees with it.
“Regardless of the position taken on the issue, the Supreme Court adopted this rule in 2018 without comment or question, and the JQC’s actions have been consistent with the plain reading of that rule, and its application in other states, since that time,” Boring said in a statement.
Because other issues regarding Coomer’s ethics hearing are back before the three-member panel, Boring said he had no further comment.
Coomer’s attorney also declined to comment since the issue is pending.
The hearing panel was chaired by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney. Other members were retired businessman Jack Winter and Dax Lopez, a Dunwoody attorney and former judge. It is the first time the judicial watchdog agency has recommended the removal of a state appellate court judge.
Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC
Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC
The panel found that Coomer improperly mingled money from his campaign account with his law firm’s banking account. Four times in 2017, his campaign account transferred between $1,000 and $1,200 to his law firm account. Each time, Coomer’s law firm account would have suffered an overdrawn balance had the transfer not been made, the panel found.
The panel also said Coomer improperly used campaign funds for family vacations to Israel and Hawaii. In all, the panel said Boring and the JQC proved 29 of the 36 ethics violations lodged against the appellate judge, who took the stand twice during his quasi-trial.
Emotional at times, Coomer said the allegations tarnished his reputation and embarrassed his family. He admitted to “blurring the lines” between attorney and friendship when he asked former client Jim Filhart for three loans totaling nearly $370,000.
Coomer also said he repaid the money with interest, though most of it was returned after Filhart filed a lawsuit accusing Coomer of fraud and malpractice.
In May 2018, months before becoming a judge, Coomer drew up a last will and testament for Filhart, naming himself and his heirs as beneficiaries, a clear violation of legal ethics rules, the panel found.
Filhart, they wrote, was Coomer’s “first and richest personal ATM.” And this included “unsecured loans on unreasonable terms with meaningless maturity dates, estate planning structures that placed total control over his client’s assets in (Coomer’s) conflicted hands.”
But the panel also determined the JQC had failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that Coomer’s dealings with Filhart involved “fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”
“Because the hearing panel’s report and recommendation was ambiguous as to whether it found that Judge Coomer acted with bad faith, without clearer findings we cannot determine what, if any, discipline is appropriate,” the Supreme Court opinion said.
The panel was instructed to revisit the case and file a new report with the Supreme Court within 60 days.
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