Judge Christian Coomer should be removed from Appeals Court bench, panel says

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Ga. Supreme Court to make final decision

A Georgia Court of Appeals judge found to have taken advantage of an older client and “illegally” using campaign funds to supplement his family’s overseas vacations should be removed from the bench, a three-member panel recommended Monday.

The Georgia Supreme Court will decide whether Christian Coomer, a Cartersville lawyer and state representative who became an appeals court judge in 2018, should be removed. Coomer, 48, has been voluntarily suspended, with pay, since January 2021, meaning he has been paid more than $350,000 by the state while on leave.

In a 50-page opinion, the three-judge panel that oversaw Coomer’s historic ethics hearing said the judge’s improper conduct and “steadily recurring abuse of positions of trust” warranted removal.

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“The judicial system, the smallest and most fragile branch of government, can function only if the people trust the women and men who populate the judiciary,” the recommendation said. “Because the public cannot and should not have faith in (Coomer’s) ability to fairly dispense justice and uphold the law in light of his repeated violations ... (he) should be removed from office so as to preserve (or at least begin to rebuild) the public’s confidence in the integrity of our judicial system.”

The unanimous 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 / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

The seven-day hearing into whether Coomer committed three dozen 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 deserves to remain on the bench.

“This man has a lifetime of good conduct and deserves to wear a robe,” Coomer’s attorney, Mark Lefkow, told the three-judge panel.

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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 the JQC proved 29 of the 36 ethics violations lodged against Coomer, 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 said he repaid the money with interest; most of it was returned after Filhart filed a lawsuit accusing Coomer of fraud and malpractice.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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 said.

Filhart, the panel said, 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.”

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It wasn’t lost on the panel that as an appellate judge, Coomer would preside over cases involving breaches of trust, estate documents, challenges to loan agreements and even campaign finance violations.

“(Coomer’s) long-term pattern of violating attorney ethics rules and campaign finance laws to his own financial benefit, his lack of remorse, and his payment of restitution only after his wrongdoing came to light outweigh mitigating factors and demand removal from office,” they wrote.

In a statement, Lefkow said Coomer hopes the Supreme Court reaches a different conclusion.

Lefkow pointed to one part of the panel’s recommendation that said the JQC had failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that Coomer’s dealings with Filhart involved “fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”

Such a finding “is correct and consistent with what the witnesses testified,” Lefkow said. “The recommendation otherwise misconstrues the evidence in a manner not supported by the witnesses’ testimony and the record, and it imposes legal standards not established by the law.”

The JQC panel said Coomer had committed too many violations over too long a time.

Coomer’s “long and unbroken pattern of violating multiple attorney ethics rules and campaign finance laws to his own financial benefit not only erodes the public’s confidence in the judiciary, but, just as importantly, falls far short of the high standards of behavior justifiably expected of all judges,” the panel said.

It also said that Coomer’s often-used excuse that he did not know he was breaking ethics rules was an insufficient explanation.

Coomer “either knowingly violated these rules and laws — and didn’t care — or he lacked basic knowledge of the ethical and professional responsibilities of his important position as attorney, counselor and, ultimately, judge,” the panel said. “Neither option — violator or uninformed — is acceptable and neither instills confidence in the judiciary,” the panel said. “And in this case, there are too many examples of both.”