Georgia appellate judge to stand trial on ethics charges

Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Christian Coomer, when he served as a legislator in the state House of Representatives in 2017. (BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM)

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Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Christian Coomer, when he served as a legislator in the state House of Representatives in 2017. (BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM)

A recent decision by the Georgia Supreme Court means that Christian Coomer will be the first state appellate court judge to stand trial for alleged ethics violations.

Coomer, who sits on the Court of Appeals and is suspended with pay, had asked the Supreme Court to halt the proceedings against him on the grounds his alleged misconduct occurred before he became a judge in October 2018.

But the state high court this week dismissed his petition, saying the case did not present “one of the extremely rare instances” that warranted such relief at this time. In their unanimous decision, the justices also said they expressed no opinion on the merits of Coomer’s arguments and said he is free to raise them again in future proceedings.

Coomer, 47, will now have to appear before a three-member hearing panel of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, which has yet to set a date for the trial. If the panel finds Coomer violated the code of judicial conduct, it can recommend punishment, including removal from office, to the Georgia Supreme Court, which has the final say on the matter.

Coomer’s legal troubles began in March 2020 when a former client, Jim Filhart, filed a lawsuit against him. The suit said Filhart gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans in 2017 and 2018 to a holding company controlled by Coomer and with terms extremely favorable to Coomer.

The JQC complaint also alleges that Coomer drafted a series of wills for Filhart that designated Coomer and his wife and children as beneficiaries. This occurred when Coomer had a private law practice in Cartersville and while he served as a member of the state House. Other ethics charges allege Coomer improperly transferred money from his campaign account to his law firm account.

In court filings, Coomer’s lawyers said their client denies any wrongdoing and they had previously asked the JQC hearing panel to throw out the charges. But the panel, in a decision written by Fulton County Judge Robert McBurney, found JQC rules allow the agency to bring charges over alleged misconduct that occurred before a judge took the bench.

Because the trial before the hearing panel is a civil proceeding, Coomer can be called to testify by JQC attorneys. This could put Coomer in a difficult position because, as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported, federal authorities are conducting a criminal investigation against him.

Whatever Coomer says under oath in the JQC proceeding could possibly be used against him in the federal criminal investigation.

“This is a typical, and classic, problem of parallel proceedings — one criminal, the other civil,” said Atlanta criminal defense attorney Don Samuel, who is not involved in the case.

In a criminal case, a defendant has the right to assert his Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions and be a witness against himself. If that occurs, the fact finder, such as a jury, will not even be made aware a defendant has invoked the privilege.

In a civil case, however, the fact finder, such as a JQC hearing panel, will know when someone chooses to assert his Fifth Amendment right not to testify, Samuel said. “And not only do they learn about it, they can actually infer that the refusal to answer is incriminating.”