Big judges quake in face of little agency

Caseload of complaints surges for 7 watchdogs.

One was caught sleeping with a public defender. Another touched the bottoms of a county prosecutor and investigator. Another was accused of tipping off the targets of an undercover FBI investigation.

Since the beginning of 2010, these judges and several others have been bounced from the bench — either because they were ordered to leave or resigned in the face of the inevitable. All were targets of investigations by a small state commission whose board members work for no pay, a director who also serves as a pastor and an investigator whose red truck is an unwelcome sight to judges across the state.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission — which has seen its caseload swell the past few years — also recently filed charges against one of the most influential judges in southeast Georgia, and the case is headed toward a potentially explosive trial.

“It’s turned from being a sleepy little agency into the one it was designed to be,” former Gov. Roy Barnes said.

“I have high marks for them,” said Barnes, now a Marietta lawyer who has represented judges investigated by the commission. “To anyone who would suggest otherwise, I’d ask them, ‘Which of their recent cases would you not have wanted them to take on?’”

The judicial commission has filed 12 ethics charges against Chief Superior Court Judge Amanda Williams of Brunswick, who ran the state’s largest drug court. The complaint accuses her of sending defendants to jail indefinitely with orders they not be allowed to contact their family or their lawyers.

The complaint also alleges that Williams engaged in nepotism, gave false statements and used rude, abusive and insulting language to those who have appeared before her in court.

Williams declined to comment this week, referring questions to her lawyer, John Ossick, who also declined to comment. Williams has relinquished control of her drug court and will not preside over criminal cases while her own case is pending.

The commission served notice of the importance it has placed on its case against Williams by assigning former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears and former state Attorney General Mike Bowers as prosecutors. Williams should be removed from the bench, Sears said recently.

Most often, judges accused of misconduct resign before formal charges are filed. Williams is an exception, and if she continues to fight the charges it will be the first time in decades the commission considers a Superior Court judge’s fate at trial.

The seven-member commission — comprising two judges, three lawyers and two lay people — would decide whether Williams violated the canons of judicial ethics. If such a finding is made, it will then recommend punishment. The Georgia Supreme Court makes the final determination.

Commission Chairman John Allen, a Superior Court judge in Columbus, said there has been an uptick in complaints against judges, at least in part because a number of cases involving high-profile judges received widespread publicity.

The commission received 517 complaints against judges during the past fiscal year and singled out 97 of them for further investigation. That’s up from 337 complaints, 37 of which were designated for more investigation, three years earlier.

“I think each commission member is a bit idealistic of how important it is that we protect the public by holding judges to the ideal standards in the code of conduct,” Allen said. “Still, there’s nothing quite so distressing to me — and to the other commission members — to go through the process of having to remove a judge, even when we find there are substantial charges and substantial support for those charges.”

Commission member Lester Tate, a former president of the State Bar of Georgia, said the commission’s small staff does exceptional work with few resources. Last year, the Legislature increased the commission’s budget from $251,000 to $409,000, but more money may be needed to handle the increased caseload, Tate said.

Jeff Davis, who oversees the commission’s daily mission, works with the only other full-time employee, an executive assistant, in the back of a bank building in Madison.

The commission’s investigator, Richard Hyde, is a former Atlanta police officer who later worked as an investigative TV journalist and chief investigator for the state attorney general’s office. Over the past year, he has worked as one of the governor’s three special investigators probing test-cheating scandals at the Atlanta and Dougherty County school systems.

Hyde, 52, crisscrosses the state confronting judges facing ethics complaints. In recent years, he secured resignations from two judges while sitting with them inside his red Ford F-150 pickup. One, former Fayette County Judge Johnnie Caldwell, was confronted with evidence he harassed a local lawyer with crude and sexually explicit comments.

Davis, 47, also took an unusual route before becoming the commission’s director in September 2010. As an assistant State Bar general counsel in the early 1990s, he investigated lawyers accused of impropriety. But he left the State Bar after a high school friend, John Puckett, asked whether he was interested in helping Puckett’s family-oriented coffee company, then based in Minneapolis, expand into the Atlanta market.

Davis agreed, going to Minneapolis to train as a cashier, barista and store manager. He then returned to Atlanta with Puckett and opened new Caribou Coffee outlets in Emory Village, Virginia-Highland and near Ansley Mall. Other outlets soon followed, but, after about a year with Caribou, Davis returned to the State Bar.

In 1999, Davis and his family moved to Madison, where he began a law practice and also entered the seminary. In 2008, Davis and his wife, Atlanta lawyer Carrie Christie, founded Gathering Madison, a nondenominational church that now has about 150 to 200 members. Services are held below a local restaurant called Town 220.

“There are many different entrances into the kingdom of God,” Davis said recently. “Ours just happens to be in the basement of a bar and grill.”

As the judicial commission’s director, Davis said his primary role is showing the state’s 1,800-plus judges how to stay out of ethical trouble.

“Judges in this state want to do the right thing,” Davis said. “They want to know where the minefields are, where their colleagues stepped over the line. This commission is focused on preventative medicine.”

Davis said his best opportunities to educate judges are when he speaks to them at conferences several times a year. “It’s like an extended sermon. I’m applying the standards of conduct to real-life situations. But instead of using the Bible, I use the code of judicial conduct.”

Stepping down

In recent years, a number of Georgia judges have left the bench after being investigated by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission. Among them:

• Muscogee County Superior Court Judge Douglas Pullen was accused of tipping off targets of an FBI probe and presiding over a case in which a child molester he sentenced to prison in 2002 remained at large until this year.

• Cobb Chief Superior Court Judge Kenneth Nix was accused of inappropriately touching a county prosecutor and investigator.

• Fayette Chief Superior Court Judge Paschal English was found by a deputy having sex in a parked car with a public defender assigned to his court.

• DeKalb State Court Judge Barbara Mobley was accused of using probationers to work for her campaign, misusing public funds and exerting her influence to help a male companion in a child-support case.