Judge accused of taking bribes, pre-signing marriage licenses

The state’s judicial watchdog agency filed ethics charges Friday against a South Georgia judge, accusing her of taking bribes and illegally pre-signing marriage license applications.

A Judicial Qualifications Commission complaint accused Camden County Associate Probate Judge Shirley Wise of nine violations, including offenses that could be prosecuted by state or local authorities.

Wise did not return phone calls or an email seeking comment. She must now appear at trial before the seven-member JQC, which would then forward its findings and recommendations to the Georgia Supreme Court.

The JQC complaint against Wise accused her of taking $5,500 in bribes from an unnamed vendor that did business with the county. The kickbacks were accepted on three separate occasions in 2009, 2010 and 2011, the complaint alleged.

The complaint accused Wise of directing an employee to put fraudulent signatures on new court documents and then file them. It also said Wise improperly allowed for-profit wedding chapels to serve as “satellite courthouses” for her court.

If Wise pre-signed marriage license applications for would-be newlyweds, those documents would be defective, but the marriages would still be valid, family law experts said.

“As long as their marriages meet the requirements of the law, it’s the public policy to uphold them,” Atlanta lawyer Rebecca Crumrine said.

Should the need arise, couples can solve any problems with their marriage licenses by signing affidavits that state the date and location of their marriage and the name of the person who officiated at the ceremony, she said.

Crumrine expressed dismay over the accusations. “Judges who don’t follow the rules need to be held liable,” she said. “We look to our judges to follow the law.”

Atlanta lawyer Randy Kessler said judges must avoid the appearance of impropriety. “But this could also be an innocent mistake, a way to save people time, a way to help facilitate marriage, which is a good thing,” he said. “But judges still need to follow the law.”

The JQC complaint said pre-signing marriage license applications is a felony under state law.

This is the second time this year a Georgia judge has been accused of pre-signing documents to be filled out when the judge was not around.

Murray County Chief Magistrate Judge Bryant Cochran resigned in August in the face of a JQC investigation, which found Cochran pre-signed arrest warrants for deputies to fill out when he was not in the office. Cochran later accepted responsibility for it.