Bill Torpy at Large: When politicians judge those who judge the judges

In recent years, an obscure state agency became effective at clearing Georgia’s judiciary of bullies, lechers, incompetents and even out-and-out criminals.

In fact, the Judicial Qualifications Committee had a pattern as it stacked them up like cord wood:

— Someone would complain a judge was pinching bottoms, inappropriately changing criminal sentences or maltreating the public.

— A JQC investigator would check into the allegation.

— The investigator, usually former Atlanta cop Richard Hyde, would confront the judge with his findings, occasionally in Hyde’s red pickup truck as it idled outside the courthouse.

— The judge would quietly drift away, writing a terse note saying he (or she) wanted to spend more time with family.

Since 2007, the underfunded, overachieving agency has removed 66 wayward judges of all shapes and sizes — from powerful Superior Court judges in large metro counties to small-time magistratorial tyrants in the boonies.

But in the past two years the agency has come under fire, mostly for the wrong-headed criminal indictment of former DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Cynthia Becker on a charge of making false statements. And another issue came to light Thursday in a legislative hearing: a legislator accused former JQC board member Lester Tate of throwing his weight around in dealing with a court clerk.

And because of those two incidents, the Legislature threatens to undo a lot of good work that’s been accomplished in the past decade. The worry is that legislators, once they finish with their legislating, will leave a toothless, bureaucratic husk of a government agency that actually got things done.

Naturally, the legislators who are pushing a change, like special committee chairman Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, say they are not out to neuter the agency. The Legislature, he said, is not “pursuing a scheme to abolish the JQC, nor are the actions to be perceived as coddling judges.”

He did make note of the board’s stout independence, although not necessarily in a positive way. “It has been set up as a truly autonomous body,” he said, “and no one, not even the (state) Supreme Court has a say-so on how they do business.”

Tate, who left as a JQC board member this year under protest, said the House hearings on this matter are a sideshow set up to justify the legislative takeover. He said he was not throwing his weight around in a north metro court; he said he was telling a clerk there that they weren’t following rules on filing pleas and could get in trouble.

It’s a truism that judges, who are used to sitting up high and judging, don’t so much like getting judged. In fact, it is not uncommon for judges who have been investigated or run out of office to complain to their legislative buddies.

The fact that Rep. Johnnie Caldwell of Griffin is one of the sponsors of the bill to change the JQC should embarrass the effort. Caldwell once sat nervously and sobbed in Richard Hyde’s pickup truck. He is a former hard-nosed prosecutor-turned-judge who resigned from the bench in 2010 for an obscene come-on to a female attorney in his circuit.

He promised not to run for another judge’s seat. But it didn’t prevent him from bringing his skills to the House of Representatives.

Most judges, when confronted with their wrongdoings, choose to resign rather than go through the embarrassing process of having the JQC bring formal, and public, charges against them. If they resign, the allegations often remain secret.

But this fall, voters will be asked to amend the state Constitution and do away with the JQC. If that happens, the Legislature would be tasked with creating a new JQC — which wouldn’t be as autonomous as the current constitutionally protected one. In essence, the Legislature could tinker with the commission whenever a politically connected judge howls.

The wording of the November referendum makes it sound like a great idea. It states that the new JQC would discipline, remove and retire judges. Stuff the board already does. Like most referendums, it depends on verbiage and voter ignorance.

In a recreated commission, the majority of the seven members would owe their alliance to the Legislature.

Currently, the Legislature has no say. The State Bar has three picks, the Supreme Court picks two judges to the board and the governor has two picks.

Under the new configuration, the Legislature would have four picks, two each from the House speaker and the lieutenant governor, who heads the Senate. The Supreme Court would still have its two picks and the governor would have one.

And then the Senate would have to approve them. Talk about a legislative footprint!

The whole effort to redo the JQC is because of what happened to former Judge Becker. She was called in to talk to the board on a complaint. But she said there was a bait-and-switch and the board talked to her about a subject she was not prepared for.

Later, she faced a felony charge of lying to the commission. There’s little doubt many judges had “misremembered” facts when talking to the JQC before they were allowed to quietly resign but were not charged.

The criminal charge came about partly because the underfunded JQC, in an effort to save money, brought in volunteer district attorneys to oversee such matters. The cost-cutting idea was a suggestion by a legislator. It was not a bad idea, it just had an unintended consequence. You bring in a prosecutor, then they prosecute.

Yes, some changes are needed at the JQC. But putting it in the hands of politicians is not one of them.

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