Georgia panel again recommends Coomer be removed from appeals bench

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

The state judicial watchdog agency on Friday recommended once again that Court of Appeals Judge Christian Coomer be removed from the bench for ethical lapses that brought his judicial office into disrepute.

Coomer took actions “to promote his interest (or his family’s) at the expense of his client’s or the public’s,” the three-member Judicial Qualification Commission hearing panel said. “In taking those actions, (Coomer) knowingly violated a host of legal and professional duties.”

Lawyers for Coomer, a former Republican state House majority whip, had said the judge should not be removed and instead receive a public reprimand. Coomer has been suspended with pay since late 2020 and has received more than $400,000 from Georgia taxpayers while on leave.

In an opinion issued in January, the hearing panel recommended Coomer be removed for violating legal ethics rules while he was a private attorney in Cartersville and after he became an Appeals Court judge. But it was forced to reconsider its recommendation when the state Supreme Court ruled in March that Coomer could not be punished for unethical conduct he committed before he became a judge. Focusing now on Coomer’s time as a judicial candidate and as a sitting judge, the panel arrived at the same conclusion.

“We are pleased that the hearing panel agreed with our recommendation that Judge Coomer should be removed for the conduct proven at trial,” said former JQC director Chuck Boring, who began investigating Coomer after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported the allegations in March 2020.

Coomer’s lawyer, Mark Lefkow, said, “While we respect the panel’s opinion, Georgia’s Constitution provides that only the Supreme Court can remove a sitting judge. We are reviewing the opinion and we look forward to briefing the matter before the Supreme Court.”

The hearing panel members are Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, attorney Dax Lopez and retired businessman Jack Winter. Their recommendation went to the state Supreme Court for an expected final resolution.

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

The hearing panel noted that Coomer:

  • Rewrote an “unethical will” for friend and client James Filhart with Coomer’s wife serving as executrix and which made himself and his family beneficiaries;
  • Drafted and executed an “unconscionable loan” with Filhart;
  • Failed to supply Filhart requested records and bills and misrepresented his knowledge of Filhart’s investments;
  • Failed to properly disclose his misuse of public campaign funds to cover expected shortfalls at his law practice;
  • Misappropriated campaign funds to pay for a “family vacation to Hawaii” and failed to properly disclose his misuse of those funds “for his family’s tropical journey.”

The panel said Coomer’s explanation attributing his misuse of funds to a “bad accounting practice” was not credible.

As for Filhart, he was “exploitable” and Coomer was “exploitive,” the panel said. “The predictable results of that mix were the exploitation of a trust-based relationship to further (Coomer’s) interests to the detriment of Filhart’s.”

The remedy, the panel said, “is not to return (Coomer) to the second-highest judicial post in the state.” There, he could preside over cases involving breaches of the duty of good faith, estate documents, challenges to the reasonableness of lending terms and campaign finance issues, it said.

“Rather, the proper response, the one that protects and preserves the institution of the judiciary that we all purport to serve, is to remove (Coomer) from that position of trust and authority,” the panel said.

The hearing panel expressed frustration that the state Supreme Court, when asked early last year to decide whether pre-judicial conduct was subject to the JQC’s jurisdiction, declined to do so.

Because it didn’t, a final hearing was held last fall that “lasted seven days, involved hundreds of exhibits and thousands of pages, required witnesses to travel from all across the country, and represented the volunteer panel members’ single-largest investment of time away from the responsibilities of their actual jobs since the re-incarnation of the JQC in 2016,” the panel noted, pointedly.

Only after that did the state high court decide pre-judicial conduct was not under the JQC’s purview.

The hearing panel urged the state Supreme Court to let Georgia join other states that have codes of judicial conduct to protect the public “from the toxic effect of judges whose pre-judicial conduct brings disrepute to the courts and causes the public to question the integrity not only of those judges but of the entire institution of the judiciary.”

Otherwise, a judge who routinely presides over domestic violence cases but who repeatedly beat his now ex-wife before he became a judge cannot be subject to discipline, the panel said. So, too, a judge who previously swindled a law partner or improperly drained his firm’s escrow cannot be investigated for “such disreputable and dishonorable conduct.”

The panel added, “It need not be that way. Past conduct can be powerfully relevant to current character and fitness to serve. We ignore it at our peril.”