Allegations show judiciary system run amok

Attorney Susan M. Brown thought things were unraveling. In court, she blurted out that the rulings in a contentious divorce case had been unfair, so she approached Fayette County Superior Judge Christopher Edwards to apologize.

Edwards wasn’t being unfair, Brown explained; it was the previous judge, veteran Judge Johnnie L. Caldwell Jr. Caldwell, she told him, had repeatedly sexually harassed her with crude comments and improperly ruled against her client. She’d brought the issue months earlier to the circuit’s chief judge, Paschal English, she said, but he did nothing.

The news rocked Edwards. Days later in court, he was clearly shaken as he rationalized about why he didn’t think he had to report the allegations. He mused aloud about getting attorneys in the divorce case to agree not to make an issue of Brown’s allegations, then seal the records of the proceedings and move on.

The issue was never sealed. In fact, it leaked out and became public. Within weeks, both Caldwell and English — half of the Griffin Judicial Circuit’s Superior Court team — had resigned in disgrace.

But the saga didn’t end there. While the resignations rocked the Fayette County courts, more allegations, an investigation, and concerns over possible conflicts of interest have left the tight-knit circuit in further disarray.

On April 28, Edwards, whose own actions had been called into question by attorneys in the divorce case, called District Attorney Scott Ballard and Public Defender Joseph Saia into his office and ordered them to conduct an investigation.

Their mission? To determine if English, a judge of 23 years known for his stint as the grizzled and beloved “Pappy” on the TV show “Survivor,” was having an affair with Kim Cornwell, a public defender who often worked in his courtroom.

English, Ballard said, had in the past year spent most of his time handling criminal cases in the four-county circuit in Fayette County, a tough-minded circuit defense attorneys call “Fayette-nam.” Cornwell was based in Fayette. If the allegations of the affair are true, defendants represented by Cornwell in English’s courtroom could ask for their convictions or sentences to be overturned.

“It’s a judicial fiasco,” attorney John Mrosek said as he walked from the Fayette County courthouse this week, summing up a common feeling in Fayetteville.

“The nature of the allegations has left the public stunned; you expect judges to be anonymous, kind of like umpires,” said Mrosek, who twice ran unsuccessfully against Caldwell and now is in the running to replace him. “There’s a feeling of ‘What else is there? Is this the end of it?’ ”

Questions may not be answered

Mrosek’s questions may not be answered for some time. DA Ballard said his probe will not stop with the alleged affair. Ballard also plans to look into a waiver that Edwards asked attorneys in the divorce case to sign saying they would not use Caldwell’s sexually inappropriate comments to Brown as an issue to appeal the divorce case.

“We have been asked to look into whether the integrity of the judiciary has been compromised,” said Ballard. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

But Steve Brown, the former mayor of Peachtree City and a candidate for the Fayette County Commission, said that by the nature of their jobs, the DA and public defender are conflicted.

“It’s common sense, you bring in outside counsel,” said Brown. “No one expects justice to be done here in Fayette County. There’s a lot of scrambling going on down there.”

Ballard, a second-term district attorney, is also on the list to replace one of the resigned judges. Being in the running for an open judgeship and an active player in the judicial system will not conflict his investigation, he said. “That’s the nature of being DA, you’re often put in odd spots.”

But the close ties and intimate nature of the circuit south of Atlanta — which also includes Spalding, Pike and Upson counties — makes his job not a happy one. “There’s been a lot of grief,” Ballard said. “They were not only judges, they were friends to a lot of people.”

Indeed they were. Last year English nominated Edwards for a spot on the Georgia Supreme Court. And in 2002, attorney Brown organized a welcome-home party for English when he returned from his South Pacific island stint on “Survivor.”

Crook v. Crook at core

At the core of Fayette’s judicial meltdown is Crook v. Crook, a divorce case that has meandered through the court for two years, building a case file two feet thick and angering judges. The sides have feuded over assets, custody rights and even tapes the husband secretly recorded of his wife screaming at him and the children.

A psychologist referred to the couple’s “extreme animosity,” an anger which seemingly bled over to bench. Once last year, a frustrated Caldwell trotted out the prospect of jailing one of the participants if they did not pay heed to his rulings.

In an affidavit, Susan Brown said Caldwell made rulings against her client that contained information that was not brought up in court. “It appeared the rulings did not match the evidence,” Gary Freed, an attorney recently brought into the case by Brown, said in an interview last week. “It appeared [the husband’s] counsel had a close, working relationship with Judge Caldwell.”

That attorney, Alan Connell, and Caldwell are both directors on the board of the West Central Georgia Bank in Thomaston, according to the bank’s Web site.

Caldwell moved off the case last summer. It is not clear if he did so as a result of Susan Brown’s complaints about him. Brown would not comment for this story. At a hearing in April, Brown said she “thought long and hard about what to do” and decided not to report Caldwell to the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, a judicial disciplinary panel.

“She had already gone to Judge English and he had not done anything,” said Freed.

Judges Caldwell and English did not return repeated calls. Public defender Cornwell would not comment, nor would Edwards. Caldwell, who resigned April 19 after a visit from a JQC investigator, admitted to WSB-TV that he had made “inappropriate comments” to female attorneys, but not from the bench.


By late 2009, English, too, was fed up with the Crook divorce case. “I basically shut off everything,” he said in a hearing. “I said, ‘Don’t file anything. If you file it. I’m going to put it in the garbage can.’ ”

Before Edwards, the case continued into 2010 with Brown complaining the husband’s side was hiding financial records and Connell complaining Brown’s side endlessly sought continuances.

In late March, Susan Brown approached Edwards to tell him about Caldwell’s comments. Her allegations about Caldwell, a 15-year judge and former DA, caught Edwards off guard. Days later, on April 2, Edwards held a hearing on the divorce and struggled with deciding what to do, transcripts show.

Edwards wanted to go forward with the case, because the circuit had run out of judges to hear it and because the Crook children’s lawyer said they were suffering from inaction. But it is also clear that Edwards, an 11-year veteran of the bench, was reluctant to report Caldwell’s actions. He called it his “diciest scenario.”

He cited judicial canon, saying judges who receive information indicating a “substantial likelihood” of another judge’s ethical violations should take “appropriate action.”

“It could be easily argued that one judge was trying to help another judge by knowing about it and saying nothing,” said Edwards. But he added that he had “no personal knowledge of whether the things Ms. Brown had to say were correct or incorrect, true or untrue.”

“What I’m explaining here is, this is why I’m not reporting it,” he said.

If Brown’s allegations were true, Edwards noted, “then the orders that were entered [by previous judges] would have been improperly entered and should not be enforced.”

Edwards said he could either recuse himself from the case or have the parties sign a document waiving the “imperfections” and “we can proceed with it and get it over with.”

Motion to disqualify

In court the following week, on April 12, Brown’s client told Edwards she did not want to sign the waiver. As the two sides haggled over the case, English entered the courtroom and asked to see Edwards.

The two went into Edwards’ chambers and had a loud conversation. “Upon his return, Judge Edwards’ demeanor had visibly changed toward [Brown’s] request” for more time to consider continuing the case, Brown and Freed later wrote in a motion seeking to disqualify Edwards from the case.

“Judge Edwards then told the parties that he was inclined to start the trial in an hour” unless Brown’s client agreed to an order that included language written by the opposing counsel requiring her to repay some money to her estranged husband.

Later that same day, an angry English summoned Brown into his chambers. Brown brought along a witness, Eric Maxwell, an attorney and Fayette County commissioner. Edwards was there also. In the meeting, Brown mentioned the rumors about English and public defender Cornwell being engaged in an affair.

The allegation, in fact, was an old one. Saia of the public defender’s office said he had investigated it last year when someone sent a letter alleging the affair. “[Cornwell] denied it and I believed her,” Saia said.

Edwards brought up the rumors again, though, on April 28, when he called for the DA and chief public defender to investigate the alleged affair. That was five days after English had resigned.

According to a transcript of the impromptu April 28 meeting, Edwards, now the chief judge, said: “What I’m here to do, as Chief Judge English always directed me to do whenever we had discussion, was to do what I knew was right.”

Ballard is supposed to bring his findings to a senior judge within a month. Any investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission is kept secret until there is any action taken.