Ga. House approves changes to judicial watchdog agency

The state House on Thursday voted unanimously to reconstitute the state's judicial watchdog agency and correct unintended problems lawmakers caused a year ago when they tried to do the same thing.

House Bill 126, approved by a 176-0 vote, gives the Legislature oversight of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates complaints against wayward judges. In recent years, the JQC has removed dozens of jurists from the bench, including one who was caught having a tryst with a local public defender, another who brandished a gun in open court, and a chief judge accused of groping a prosecutor and an investigator.

H.B. 126 would ensure higher levels of fairness, due process and transparency in disciplinary proceedings against judges, the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs , said before the vote. The bill now heads to the Senate.

A year ago, lawmakers put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that was approved by voters in November . The amendment abolishes the JQC as of June 30 and allows for a new commission to be created the next day.

But lawmakers also passed another piece of legislation during the 2016 General Assembly that called for the JQC to be abolished at the end of last year. The conflicting dates of the JQC’s closure has led some legal experts to assert the commission is now without any authority to take action against judges.

That same piece of legislation sealed from pubic view most all of the commission’s actions and proceedings, including the trial of a judge accused of misconduct. H.B. 126 would fix that unintended consequence by reopening those proceedings to the public.

The legislation also establishes a new two-tiered system of review. In the past, the commission’s board would not only decide whether to bring ethics charges against a judge, it also sat in judgment of the case if the judge sought to fight the charges at a hearing.

H.B. 126 now provides for a seven-member commission that would screen complaints against judges, decide whether an investigation is necessary and then decide whether to file formal charges against a judge. After that, a new three-member hearing panel that includes a presiding judge would decide whether the accused judge violated the code of judicial conduct and, if necessary, what sort of punishment should be imposed.

All these actions and decisions would be subject to final review by the Georgia Supreme Court. H.B. 126 says this new two-tiered system would take effect July 1.

In the meantime, H.B. 126 allows for the appointment of seven members to preside over the commission until the end of June. These members must first be confirmed by a vote of the Senate.

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The JQC recently hired Ben Easterlin to be its director. Easterlin, who recently retired from the law firm King & Spalding, once served as chairman of the JQC.

Athens attorney Ed Tolley, who now chairs the commission, said he believes the agency will once again be able to take formal disciplinary actions against judges once H.B. 126 is enacted and once the Senate confirms all the recent appointments of JQC commission members.

“We’re ready to get to work as soon as possible,” Tolley said.