An Athens judge should publicly apologize to a bail bondsman for detaining him in courthouse chambers and berating him for posts on social media, the state’s judicial watchdog agency is recommending.
By a 2-1 vote, the Judicial Qualifications Commission’s hearing panel asked the Georgia Supreme Court to approve its suggested punishment for Superior Court Judge Eric Norris: Apologize, in open court, for what he did to bondsman Nathan Owens two years ago at the Athens-Clarke County Courthouse.
The incident happened after a mistrial for a man charged with rape when a jury deadlocked 11-1 for acquittal. Norris then released the defendant on his own recognizance, not requiring him to post bond.
When the Athens Banner-Herald later reported the defendant missed a court appearance, Owens posted on personal and group Facebook pages, “Rapist on the loose in Athens” and denounced Norris for releasing the defendant.
After drawing criticism, Norris reached out to a friend, John Elliott, who was also a bondsman, and asked him to tell Owens he wanted to talk to him.
On July 10, 2019, Owens, Elliott and another bondsman went to see the judge. They were met at the doorway to Norris’ chambers by an armed deputy who had the men place their cellphones in a wooden box.
Seeing Norris was visibly agitated, Owens said he was uncomfortable and wanted to leave. To which Norris replied, “No, you’re going to sit down and listen to what I have to say,” the panel’s decision said.
With the armed deputy standing by the door, Owens testified he did not feel free to leave. Norris then began berating Owens in such a way he felt his job was at risk, the decision said. And when Owens asked to have his attorney present, Norris, his face red with anger, did not stop the meeting to allow Owens to summon his lawyer, the decision said.
After allowing the two other bondsmen to join the meeting, Norris then openly demeaned Owens, the decision said.
The hearing panel’s majority said Norris clearly treated Owens “patently unfairly” and showed “a lack of soundness of character” throughout the entire episode.
And while Norris had asked the panel to essentially dismiss the charges against him, it would not do so. “The misconduct is too serious and its impact on members of the public has been too significant for this case to be simply brushed aside,” said the decision, issued by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney and Rabun County educator Maggie Rickman.
The third panel member, Atlanta lawyer Jamala McFadden, dissented, saying the recommended sanction isn’t enough. She said Norris should also be reprimanded in open court for what he did.
“Judge Norris used his position to deny Owens’ requests to leave his chambers and get legal counsel,” McFadden wrote. “And he used his position to berate, belittle and bully Owens, as well as threaten his livelihood. All because Judge Norris did not agree with something Owens posted online. Such conduct is unbecoming of a judge and a misuse of the judicial office.”
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