Head of state’s judicial watchdog agency resigns

The executive director of the state’s judicial watchdog agency resigned Monday, yet another development for an agency engulfed in turmoil.

Hiawassee attorney Mark Dehler, who’d headed the Judicial Qualifications Commission since September, will serve until Aug. 16. Just four months ago, attorney Lester Tate resigned as the commission’s chairman, saying outside political forces were trying to undermine the agency’s independence.

Meanwhile, the judge who chairs the commission is enmeshed in a highly public controversy of her own, and the commission itself will face a critical referendum by Georgia voters in November.

It was not long ago that the JQC was attracting national recognition for its swift action in securing the resignations of dozens of wayward judges. This included a judge who had an affair with a public defender, a judge who indefinitely locked up drug-court offenders and a magistrate who orchestrated a plot to plant drugs on a woman who publicly accused him of propositioning her. But in recent months the agency has weathered one controversy after another.

In an interview, Dehler said it was simply time to do something new.

“I have greatly enjoyed this last year doing this job and working with those on the commission,” he said. “It’s been a rewarding experience — a very eye-opening experience — but an extremely rewarding experience.”

Dehler’s resignation was announced by the agency’s chair, Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver, in a message to commission members.

“I am sure you join me in wishing him well,” Weaver wrote. “As chair, I certainly appreciate his assistance and guidance during this time period.”

Weaver, chief judge of the three-county Appalachian Judicial Circuit, has been strongly criticized for initiating a criminal indictment against a Fannin County newspaper publisher and his attorney who were seeking access to public records concerning Weaver's court.

Even though the charges against the two men were later dismissed, the Society of Professional Journalists filed an ethics complaint against Weaver, accusing her of inappropriately trying to silence a critic. The FBI has since collected documents and conducted initial interviews regarding Weaver's spending. Weaver has denied any wrongdoing and resisted calls by her critics to resign.

This November, voters will be asked to consider a constitutional amendment to abolish and remake the seven-member commission. The amendment, if adopted, will take away the State Bar of Georgia’s influence over the JQC and give the Legislature more power over it.

Before becoming head of the JQC last September, Dehler had been appointed by the state Supreme Court as a "special master" to oversee a State Bar of Georgia ethics complaint against House Speaker David Ralston. But he resigned from that position to head the judicial watchdog agency.

Tate, the commission’s former chair, said Dehler was an “extremely qualified” executive director.

“I’m not surprised in the least that he’s leaving,” Tate said. “What has happened is that the Legislature chose to politicize the whole system. Who’s going to stick around in a job like that when you’re going to have the constitutional amendment on the ballot in November?”