Metro Atlanta judges hand out fines and judgments every day to people in their courts, but have a terrible record complying with ethics laws that govern their own conduct, an investigation by The Georgia News Lab, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News has found.
Like all public officials, judges are annually required to report information about their income, assets and who gives them money for their political campaigns — but many don’t, the investigation found.
What’s more, three-quarters of Superior Court judges in metro Atlanta have been fined for failing to meet disclosure requirements in the past five years. More than half of those fined still hadn’t paid their “late fees” — legal speak for fines — when reporters started inquiring about missing disclosure forms this year.
The fine for non- or late-filing is $125, less than many speeding tickets. Yet some judges went years without paying or filing, and half the judges repeatedly missed filing the required disclosures to the state ethics commission, which is charged under state law with collecting and making available to the public these reports and fining officials who file late or not at all.
Judges and lawyers routinely admonish citizens that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” But that’s exactly the excuse some judges claimed to reporters.
“I don’t make it a habit of going to the (ethics) site, so if you don’t check and you’re not getting any notice, there’s not a lot you can do,” said Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Esmond Adams, who missed filing six years of personal financial disclosure reports and was one of the worst offenders identified in the investigation.
Other judges made similar excuses, and cited flaws in the ethics commission’s reporting system. However, many said it was their mistake to not file and said they were embarrassed to learn they hadn’t been complying with the law.
“It was not until you guys started calling that I even realized I had an obligation to file,” said DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson, who had not filed a personal financial disclosure since she was appointed in 2012.
In fact, reporters found that judges have been receiving notices about their filing obligations for years. The state ethics commission website lists the filing schedule for officials running for office, but many judges told reporters they didn’t realize the filing schedule was posted online.
An internal online resource and discussion forum, Sidebar, which is for Georgia Superior Court judges and their staffs, also had regular reminders. In a search of the forum, reporters found at least two posts by the attorney for the Council of Superior Court Judges that detail required disclosure reports and filing dates in 2015 and 2016 for Superior Court judges.
In April, the Georgia Administrative Office of the Courts got wind of the news investigation and sent a reminder email to judges across the state alerting them to check their filing status to ensure they were current.
“If you have filed late, we have been told you will have a late fee which is set by statute and that the late fees are escalating,” the email from the office said.
Indifference to filing requirements changed when reporters contacted judges to ask why they were not complying with the law, and many judges filed their missing disclosure reports, some dating back years.
When judges don’t file their disclosures, the public is left in the dark. The forms allow parties appearing before a judge to know about potential conflicts of interest, such as when a contributor is a party in a case or the judge has a financial stake in the outcome.
The Georgia News Lab, an investigative reporting class of student journalists from Georgia universities, teamed up with reporters from the AJC and Channel 2 to examine the disclosures of Superior Court judges in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties, 50 judges in all.
Stefan Ritter, the state ethics commission director, said he only learned the extent of non-compliance among judges when reporters brought them to his attention in April.
He attributed some of the problems to technical shortcomings of the commission’s data system and notification glitches.
But he said the scope of the problem is much larger than the thousands of dollars metro judges owe in fines.
“If we took that in the big picture — state and local and escalation of fees and so forth — plainly (it’s) millions of dollars,” Ritter said.
Ritter said the ethics commission would start calling on public officials to pay up, but acknowledged fixing the entire record-keeping system — which does not consistently notify officials of upcoming or missed deadlines — would take time.
Yet Ritter said that his agency is still responsible for ensuring the law is followed.
“I’m sure a judge would be the first to tell you that ignorance of the law is no excuse,” Ritter said.
Thousands of dollars in unpaid fines
Some judges seemed surprised and even exasperated when told by student journalists they hadn’t followed disclosure laws.
“You’re saying I’ve been fined?” Judge Tom Davis asked in a phone interview.
Davis, a Superior Court judge in Gwinnett County, has been on the court since 2006. He had never filed a personal financial disclosure report, and had racked up $500 in late fees for overdue reports.
The day after a reporter spoke with him in April, he started to get his filings in order. Over the course of several days, he filed years of reports, from 2006 to 2014. In a first, he also filed a personal financial disclosure on time — his 2015 report.
Judge Davis acknowledged the breakdown was his fault.
“I blame that on no one else,” he said.
All told, the 50 Superior Court judges reviewed were assessed at least $13,500 in late fees over the past five years. Some swiftly settled their debts as word of the news investigation spread through local courthouses, but a few still haven’t paid up. In March, roughly $4,750 was unpaid and by June 9 five judges still owed $2,125.
“I’m just dumbfounded,” said DeKalb Superior Court Judge Clarence F. Seeliger. “I think when the attention’s brought to them, they ought to be paying as soon as possible. That’s part of our responsibilities as judges.”
Seeliger learned about the investigation in an email from another judge who had spoken to the student journalists. Seeliger — who has been a judge for more than 35 years — had his secretary call the ethics commission when he learned he had not filed his personal disclosure on time and had a fine of $125. He paid it immediately, he said.
He said judges need more training on their disclosure requirements, but made no excuses for not meeting deadlines or paying penalties.
“Especially judges,” he said. “We do impose sanctions against other people for failing to perform, so if we don’t perform, we should be willing to take the punishment.”
Failures to file, missed deadlines
In 2012, Fulton judges had lost patience with thousands of citizens failing to appear for jury duty.
The court administrator at the time said it sent a bad message to “not hold people accountable” for failing to appear. Judges even threatened jail time if citizens continued to neglect their duty.
“Up to now, there have been no consequences for failing to appear,” Judge Adams, who’d been tasked with cleaning up the problem, told the AJC in 2012.
At the time, she herself had missed three ethics disclosure deadlines with the state. In a recent interview, she said her own failure to comply with state disclosure laws was not the same as citizens ignoring a jury summons because she said she’d never been notified about her missing reports.
Before Adams was elected to the bench in 2008, she filed a personal financial disclosure statement with the state ethics commission. At the time, Adams detailed her fiduciary positions as well as her and her husband’s employment information and property interests.
But between her initial election eight years ago and 2015, Adams filed only one disclosure form, in 2010. She failed to comply with the state-mandated filing requirements in all the other years.
On March 22, however, while the news investigation was underway, Adams filed all her missing forms back to 2008, according to the ethics commission website.
“We’re responsible for upholding laws, so I don’t think any of us want to be in a position where we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do,” Adams said. “I was mortified when I found out that I was not doing something that I was supposed to be doing.”
Despite her failure to file year after year, the ethics website through showed she’d been fined only once — for a missed 2012 filing.
On April 15, the system generated $375 in additional fines for previous missed filings. As of June 1, Adams had paid all the fines.
She blames the ethics commission for not telling her and other judges of their missed deadlines.
“Rather than having significant lapses of time where filings aren’t made, it makes sense to notify the person,” she said.
Ural Glanville, also a Fulton County Superior Court judge, has missed four filing deadlines during his 11 years on the bench. Glanville, an army reservist, said he was deployed in Afghanistan when he missed the 2012 disclosure deadline.
The ethics commission didn’t know about the missed filings until someone unhappy about a case in Glanville’s court filed a complaint against the judge. Even the extenuating circumstances of his overseas service didn’t excuse the late fees.
“I went through the (ethics commission) process like anybody else subject to (complaints for) not filing the disclosure,” he said.
Glanville said judges “serve the public trust” and must follow the ethics rules. The fines did change his behavior — he now marks all disclosure deadlines on his calendar.
“Look, it’s their rules. They have to be followed,” Glanville said. “I’m subject to them just like anybody else.”
The agency tasked with overseeing disclosure by judges and other public officials has struggled for years to effectively carry out its mission.
When Ritter took the helm of the ethics commission in April 2015, a state audit had already outlined more than a dozen problems at the agency, including an outdated and complicated computer system that hampers a citizens’ ability to access information about thousands of public officials across Georgia.
Ritter acknowledges that the problems with the computer system are helping some officials avoid being transparent about conflicts of interest.
“I can tell you, that inadvertently or not, it does happen,” Ritter said.
One of the system’s shortcomings is that the ethics website doesn't consistently show an official's fine history. Ritter was unaware of the problem before reporters questioned him about it.
“We have an obligation to get the records, to make them public, to allow people to see them, and to enforce the law,” he said. “And if our computer system could do that, and doesn’t do that, then I think it’s a serious problem.”
Judges are not automatically notified when they’ve been fined and the system doesn’t usually flag late or missing reports. Sometimes, officials pay within the grace period, but they still show up as having been fined on the website.
According to the state Campaign Finance Act, a list of officials who have not filed the most recent campaign disclosure report or financial disclosure statements should be posted online on a quarterly basis. The ethics commission has not been generating those reports.
More than half of the judges who still owed fees to the state at the start of the investigation paid them after reporters brought them to their attention.
As of June 9, the five judges who had unpaid late fees totalling $2,125 were Kathryn Schrader of Gwinnett County; T. Jackson Bedford, Bensonetta Tipton Lane and Tom Campbell of Fulton County; and Gregory Adams of DeKalb County, according to ethics commission records.
At least one judge took it upon himself to “self-report” his late filing, but that proactive approach was not the norm.
In 2015, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Todd Markle’s assistant notified him of a missed deadline, and he went ahead and paid the $125 fee before the ethics commission ever caught up with him.
“I didn’t know if they would notify me,” Markle said. “I just figured I owed them the money.”
Judge Markle said he thinks it’s important for the public to know about public officials’ responsibilities and “why things aren’t getting done.”
“You know, candidly, I think (a story like this) has been a long time coming,” he said.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.