As lawmakers search for every penny that can be squeezed from the state budget, powerful voices at the Capitol want to know: is Georgia paying Cheryl Fisher Custer too much?
Custer makes $82,500 a year as director of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the tiny agency charged with the important task of handling complaints against Georgia judges.
Custer has said repeatedly in interviews that she works part-time. But state personnel records show Custer is officially a full-time employee, according to a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) said last week he’s asked a House subcommittee to investigate.
“I think $80,000 a year should get you full-time work,” Ralston said. “I think that’s what Georgians would expect.”
Ralston has also asked the subcommittee to review the $1,100 a month the commission spends to rent office space in Covington, not far from Custer’s home in Rockdale County. Ralston said other state government offices related to the judiciary have Atlanta office space. The office moved to Covington after Custer became executive director.
Questions suggesting financial excess are hitting the commission even though it is one of the most slimly-staffed judicial disciplinary bodies in the nation. In budget discussions at the General Assembly last year, the focus was the commission’s need for more money, not less. Complaints before the commission have increased, and a series of recent cases involving serious charges increased the workload even further.
“I just question how we’re prioritizing the use of our resources,” Ralston said. “I’m not sure that paying somebody that kind of money for part-time work and then complaining about not being able to fund investigations and prosecutions makes a lot of sense.”
The commission was so short of money last year that its investigator worked for months without pay. The commission still owes former state Attorney General Mike Bowers well over $100,000 for serving as the commission’s prosecutor in its most serious cases.
Ralston said he believes the JQC is effective “because they have people who are dedicated to the mission of the agency.” He said he doesn’t question Custer’s dedication.
Custer, a former Rockdale County district attorney, declined to be interviewed, saying she is required to refer questions to commission members. Several commission members praised Custer’s performance and the efficiency of the commission overall. “I can’t imagine any agency that gets a bigger bang for its buck than the JQC,” said Superior Court Judge John D. Allen, a commission member.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission is a seven-member body created by the Georgia Constitution. Its members are two judges, three attorneys and two non-attorney citizens, all appointed to serve without pay. The commission is charged with reviewing complaints against any of Georgia’s 1,800 jurists, whether non-lawyer magistrates or members of the state Supreme Court.
The day-to-day work is assigned to Custer, a full-time secretary and an investigator, Richard Hyde, who works on contract. The commission’s annual budget for the current fiscal year is $276,749, according to state records.
Every state with more than 1,000 judges – except Georgia – employs at least two full-time lawyers to investigate judicial complaints, as do most states with as few as 300 judges, according to the American Judicature Society.
Custer was hired by the commission to the director’s job in 1999.
Ben Easterlin, the commission’s chairman and an attorney at the King & Spalding law firm, said last week that Custer was “hired as a full-time employee, but on the terms that she would work three days a week.” Those were the same terms, he said, given to her predecessor.
The contract Custer signed when she was hired does not specify how many hours she would work. She was hired at an annual salary of $48,000. Two years later, the commission increased her pay to $70,000 a year, personnel records show.
Although Custer has confirmed her part-time status in interviews, she confused the matter last week by telling a House subcommittee that she is a full-time employee.
Some commission members argued that the high-level focus on Custer’s salary misses the point.
During Custer’s tenure, Easterlin said, the commission’s case load has doubled. He said Custer has also taken on the extra responsibility of helping educate Georgia judges, many of whom are not attorneys, by frequently speaking at judicial training seminars.
Easterlin said Custer’s salary is less than state pay for employees in comparable jobs. “Coupled with the volunteer service of the Commission members, the tiny JQC budget produces a great return for the state,” Easterlin said in an email.
Commission member Bob Herriott vigorously defended Custer, saying she frequently works five or six days a week. Especially considering the commission’s meager funding, he said, “Cheryl is doing an absolutely excellent job.”
He said those questioning the commission’s use of funds may not fully understand the demands of the operation. And he said that the commission may be unpopular in some camps for aggressively pursuing complaints against politically-connected judges.
Robert Ingram, a commission member who is a former president of the State Bar of Georgia, said last week that he wasn’t aware that personnel records indicate Custer is full time. But he said the work demands of the commission have prompted an internal discussion about Custer’s hours.
“I can’t speak to what she was told when she was hired,” Ingram said. “I am comfortable saying that the JQC needs a full-time director.”
State Rep. Chuck Martin (R-Alpharetta), who leads a House subcommittee looking into JQC spending, said an overall review of the commission’s operations makes sense in this era of tight budgets. And he said if Custer is giving inconsistent information about whether she works full-time or part-time, “I would question if she is the person to lead the organization.”
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