House votes to change panel that investigates judges

The Georgia House passed legislation Monday that could lead to a shake-up at the state agency responsible for investigating allegations of judicial misconduct.

Since 2007, more than five dozen Georgia judges have resigned after investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC).

A move to abolish and then recreate the JQC under the wing of the General Assembly and governor would require a change in the state Constitution that, if passed, would be put before Georgia voters this fall.

House Bill 808 and House Resolution 1113 setting that in motion passed the House on Monday at the urging of Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, chairman of the chamber’s influential Judiciary Committee.

Willard said the JQC, which was created in the 1972 to investigate potential judicial misconduct, “has effectively lost credibility.”

Although he said there were reports of other questionable conduct, Willard focused on criminal charges brought against now retired DeKalb Superior Court Judge Cynthia Becker.

Becker was indicted last year for allegedly lying to the JQC about her handling of the criminal public school construction contracting case against former DeKalb County School Superintendent Crawford Lewis. Those charges — four felony counts of making false statements, two felony counts of false writings and a misdemeanor count of obstruction – were later dropped.

Willard said Becker, who had already announced her retirement, thought she was going before the JQC on another complaint when the commission started questioning her about the Lewis case.

“I am not for bad judges serving in office, but certainly a sitting judge should be afforded some due process,” he told his House colleagues.

Some members of the JQC have been asked to resign, but refused, Willard said. Abolishing the current commission and recreating a new one is the only way to force their removal, he said.

Willard’s bill strips the State Bar of Georgia, which has a pending investigation of House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, of any say-so in the JQC appointments.

Currently, the seven-member JQC has two judges selected by the state Supreme Court, three lawyers, each with at least 10 years of experience appointed by the State Bar of Georgia and two citizens who are appointed by the governor and can’t be members of the Bar..

Under Willard’s bill, the Supreme Court retains its two appointments. But the state Bar of Georgia loses its three appointments – one to Ralston, one to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and one to the governor, giving him a total of three appointments.

He also has a third piece of legislation that is slated to the House floor Tuesday calling for what’s believed to be a first: a seven-member legislative committee with subpoena powers to investigate the JQC’s actions in advance of the November referendum.

Lester Tate, a Cartersville attorney and chairman of the JQC, said Georgia is losing ground with the changes lawmakers are proposing.

"In 2015, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Center for Public Integrity gave Georgia a D- in Ethics," Tate said. "One of the few bright spots in that report was the fact that our State had a judicial watchdog agency that was free from 'political interference.' Unfortunately, after today's actions we can no longer say even that is true.

The JQC received 412 complaints about judges across the state in 2014, of which of 314 were rejected as without merit or because the agency lacked jurisdiction.

In the 60 cases that were docketed, seven judges resigned after being investigated, one resigned after formal charges and one was publicly reprimanded and suspended, according to the JQC annual report.