Coweta chief judge to leave bench amid probe

Chief Judge William F. Lee Jr. of the Coweta Judicial Circuit, one of Georgia's longest serving Superior Court judges, announced Thursday he will step down from the bench in the face of investigation by the state's judicial watchdog agency.

In a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal, Lee said he will retire on May 1 after 37 years of public service. When he retires, Lee will become the seventh chief Superior Court judge to step down from the bench since 2010 while under investigation for ethical lapses.

A filing with the Georgia Supreme Court that was signed by Lee and Judicial Qualifications Commission director Jeff Davis said Lee was being investigated for allegations of judicial misconduct and that the matter is now concluded.

The court filing said Lee was being investigated for allegedly engaging in improper communications with lawyers and entering orders in cases without notifying all parties and attorneys involved. He was also being investigated for assigning himself pending cases when he was otherwise disqualified, the filing said.

In a brief interview, Lee, whose chambers are in Newnan, said he was stepping down on his own terms, not because of the investigation.

"I'm 69 years old and I've been a judge for almost 32 years," he said. "I'm tired and I'm ready. I'm ready to go. This is my decision."

Lee, the son of popular local pharmacist, was a district attorney before he became a judge. For years, he was a throwback to an age of domineering Southern judges in the way he ran his court. More than a decade ago, he sometimes denied lawyers to poor people accused of crimes because their relatives had posted a bond to get them out of jail.

In 2001, Lee was among a number of public officials sued for the way Coweta County ran its indigent defense system and for allowing criminal defendants to languish in jail for months without being appointed a lawyer. The suit accused Lee of directing lawyer-less defendants to talk to prosecutors during criminal calendar calls without advising them of their right to an attorney or warning them of the perils of proceeding without one.

The case was ultimately settled when Coweta agreed to establish a full-time public defender's office.

"This should have happened 30 years ago," Stephen Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights and a lawyer in the litigation, said of Lee's retirement. "We filed our lawsuit because Judge Lee was engaging in patently illegal denials of lawyers for poor people accused of crimes."

Deal, who will appoint Lee's successor, accepted his resignation on Thursday. The Coweta Judicial Circuit is comprised of Carroll, Coweta, Heard, Meriwether and Troup counties.

Info box: Seven step down

When he retires May 1, William F. Lee Jr. will become the seventh chief Superior Court judge in Georgia to step down amid ethics investigations since 2010. The others:

Lynn Akeley-Alderman of the Enotah Judicial Circuit resigned in March while being investigated for allegedly engaging in an improper meeting with a Forsyth County judge to promote the interests of a methamphetamine trafficker.

David Barrett of the Enotah Judicial Circuit retired in March after he brandished a handgun in court to make a rhetorical point to an alleged sexual assault victim as she testified on the witness stand.

Amanda Williams of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit retired in January after being charged with behaving in a tyrannical manner and locking up some drug court defendants indefinitely.

Kenneth Nix of Cobb County resigned in October 2010 after being accused by a county prosecutor and investigator of inappropriately touching their bottoms.

Paschal English of the Griffin Judicial Circuit resigned in April 2010 amid disclosures he was having an affair with a public defender assigned to his court. A deputy found them having sex in a parked car.

Ernest "Bucky" Woods of the Mountain Judicial Circuit resigned in January 2010 after being accused of improperly contacting a female criminal defendant through Facebook.

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