Former judges complain of treatment by judicial commission

A former DeKalb County Superior Court judge said Thursday she was duped and “sucker punched” when she met with the commission that oversees Georgia’s judiciary — a meeting that led to her indictment and, finally, to her agreement never to return to the bench.

A now-retired Bartow County Probate Court judge told a legislative committee studying the Judicial Qualifications Commission that the JQC used threats and intimidation against him, and that the agency’s investigator had rummaged through his desk at the courthouse without permission.

Former DeKalb Judge Cynthia Becker and former Bartow County Probate Court Judge Mitchell Scoggins told their stories to the House Special Study Committee on Judicial Qualifications Commission Reform, which was having its second meeting.

Committee members say they will sort through the wildly different stories recounted one week to the next and try to come up with a way to make the JQC better. Some critics have maintained that the move to alter the commission is designed to help settle political scores for connected judges who have tangled with the commission.

“Each of us … want judges to be accountable for bad conduct,” said committee member Rep. Trey Kelly, R-Cedartown. “No one here is trying to let judges get away with bad conduct. The JQC provides oversight and it’s needed. But I think what we’ve seen over the last two weeks is we need someone to police the police.”

Voters in November will decide whether to amend the state Constitution to give the General Assembly control over the agency. Assuming that the measure would pass, the Georgia House created the committee this year to recommend changes in the JQC.

Since 2007, the commission has removed almost six dozen judges. One of the backers of the movement to change the commission is state Rep. Johnnie Caldwell Jr., R-Thomaston, who resigned from the bench in the Griffin Judicial Circuit in 2010 after he was accused of making rude, sexually suggestive comments to a female attorney.

At this week’s meeting, the House members focused on how much notice the JQC gives judges under investigation, on paperwork problems and on issues with a former contract investigator whom the governor has now appointed as a commissioner. The legislators also renewed their criticism of former JQC chairman Lester Tate, a Cartersville attorney who brought the complaint against Scoggins and was central in Becker’s case.

The commission investigated Becker last year for her handling of a sentencing in 2013. Five months after she retired from the bench in the spring of last year, Becker was indicted on four felony charges of making a false statement when JQC members questioned her about the matter. Becker’s criminal charges were dropped four days later after she agreed never to return to the bench; she had wanted to preside over drug and veterans courts as a senior judge.

“It was pretty darn clear they wanted my head,” Becker told the committee. “I was sucker punched. Looking back at it, I was naive. So stupid… . There’s a pattern of abuse that’s so extreme that not only should the JQC be abolished, it should be remodeled.”

The legislators were sympathetic.

“You were played. You were close to being railroaded,” Kelley said.

Scoggins said Tate threatened to open a JQC case against him “because he could not file his paperwork the way he wanted to” for a client in Tate’s private practice.

Tate said Scoggins was requiring defendants to waive their right to a jury trial if they wanted to enter a not guilty plea first in probate court. He said that practice was used in no other court in Georgia.

“I don’t have a problem reporting a judge who was denying a defendant a trial by jury,” said Tate, who recused himself from any discussions of Scoggins after the judge filed his JQC complaint.

Scoggins said Tate then sent the agency’s investigator, now commission board member Richard Hyde, to “shake things up.”

Scoggins said Hyde threatened to “shut down the probate court” if employees didn’t provide records. Scoggins, who was out of town at the time, said Hyde went through papers on his desk.

“I didn’t like that at all,” Scoggins said.

Hyde said he was doing a “routine courtroom inspection I was asked to perform” and he sat on the judge’s bench to get the judge’s perspective.

Willard said all JQC members would be invited to appear at the meeting in about two weeks.

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