Judge must be reprimanded for detaining bondsman, Georgia high court rules

Clarke County Superior Court Judge Eric Norris. (Athens-Clarke County Unified Government)

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Clarke County Superior Court Judge Eric Norris. (Athens-Clarke County Unified Government)

An Athens judge must receive a public reprimand for detaining and berating a bail bondsman who had criticized the judge on social media, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The state high court rejected a recommendation from the hearing panel of the state’s judicial watchdog agency that Superior Court Judge Eric Norris only issue a public apology to bondsman Nathan Owens.

The court said Norris has not fully accepted responsibility for what he did. And it said because Norris has not already apologized to Owens, a public apology “would be insincere at best.”

The court said it will appoint another judge to give the reprimand to Norris “in person in open court.”

The incident occurred after Norris released a rape defendant on his own recognizance because a jury deadlocked 11-1 for his acquittal. Upon learning this, Owens posted on personal and group Facebook pages, “Rapist on the loose in Athens,” and said Norris should have made the man post bond.

Days later, Norris reached out to a friend, bail bondsman John Elliott, and asked him to tell Owens he wanted to talk to him. On July 10, 2019, Owens, Elliott and another bondsman went to the courthouse. At the doorway to Norris’ chambers, an armed deputy had the three men place their cellphones in a box.

Once inside the judge’s chambers, Norris ignored Owens’ request to have a lawyer present. And with a deputy standing in the doorway, Owens said he felt like he had no option to leave. Norris then lit into Owens, berating him for about 30 minutes.

In its opinion, the court found that Norris had violated two codes of conduct: one that requires judges to act in a way that promotes confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, the other that requires judges to be “patient, dignified and courteous” to people they deal with in their official capacity.