Judge accused of ignoring lawyer’s urgent pleas for bathroom break

DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Courtney Johnson 2015 when she presided over the corruption trial involving former county CEO Burrell Ellis. (KENT D. JOHNSON/AJC)

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DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Courtney Johnson 2015 when she presided over the corruption trial involving former county CEO Burrell Ellis. (KENT D. JOHNSON/AJC)

The state’s judicial watchdog agency is investigating the chief judge of the DeKalb County Superior Court on allegations she denied a defense attorney’s urgent requests for a bathroom break, resulting in an inevitable accident.

The judge later told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that her inspection showed no evidence of urine on the attorney’s chair and said she found the incident “very suspicious.” But the lawyer’s recitation of what transpired said the judge inspected the chair after it had been wiped off with paper towels.

The incident occurred June 21 during a murder trial before Superior Court Judge Courtney Johnson in a case being tried by public defender Jan Hankins. The embarrassing episode was chronicled in a sworn statement by Hankins, which was attached to a court motion asking Johnson to remove herself from the case.

The motion said Johnson’s actions created the perception that her integrity, impartiality and competence could be impaired. “Simply put, a high standard of conduct in civilized societies requires that a court grant urgent requests to use the restroom,” Hankins wrote.

Johnson said in an interview there had been a miscommunication between her and Hankins and questioned whether Hankins actually had the accident. But a sheriff’s deputy’s account of the incident appears to back up Hankins’ statement.

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Public defender Jan Hankins in a 2015 photo. (Hyosub Shin / AJC file)

Public defender Jan Hankins in a 2015 photo. (Hyosub Shin / AJC file)

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Public defender Jan Hankins in a 2015 photo. (Hyosub Shin / AJC file)

The allegations raise questions about civility and courtroom protocol.

“If it’s true, it’s unconscionable,” said Stephen Bright, former head of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. “It just violates human decency.”

In her motion, Hankins noted that her boss, Maurice Kenner, had filed a complaint against Johnson with the state Judicial Qualifications Commission. The JQC investigates allegations of judicial misconduct.

Ben Easterlin, director of the JQC, said he could neither confirm nor deny whether the commission was investigating the judge. Johnson, in the interview, acknowledged the JQC investigation. Hankins had no comment.

The episode occurred on the morning of the third day of the murder trial involving R’shon Blake, who stands accused of killing Amountrae Hawkins in 2015.

In her affidavit, Hankins said she raised her hand, caught Johnson’s attention and mouthed the word “bathroom.” But Johnson gave no response, Hankins said.

About 10 minutes later, Hankins said, she was finding it hard to maintain her composure. So she wrote “bathroom” in large letters on a piece of paper on a legal pad and showed it to the courtroom deputy. The deputy then passed a note to Johnson, who read it, Hankins said.

Twenty minutes later, when the prosecution was having technical problems playing an audiotape, Johnson excused the jury from the courtroom. She then looked at Hankins and told her she could be excused. But by then, it was too late. Hankins said she’d already urinated while sitting at the defense table.

In her affidavit, Hankins made it clear this was no minor accident — the inside lining of her dress was soaked. She said she ran to the women's restroom, cleaned up as best she could and brought towels back to the courtroom and wiped off her chair.

During the lunch break, Johnson entered the courtroom and asked to look at the chair.

“As I recall, she didn’t express any regret for my predicament, nor inquire whether I needed additional time to obtain fresh clothing,” Hankins wrote. “She seemed more interested in viewing the state of the chair seat.”

In an interview, Johnson, a former prosecutor, disagreed with Hankins’ account of what happened in her courtroom.

“It was a miscommunication between myself and Mrs. Hankins,” Johnson said. “I at no time told her she couldn’t go to the bathroom.”

She said she did notice Hankins had been trying to get her attention that morning during the trial. “But I couldn’t hear her,” the judge said.

When the deputy handed her the note about using the bathroom, Johnson said, she sent a note back asking if Hankins could wait until the audiotape had finished playing. “But I never got a reply back,” Johnson said.

During the courtroom break, Hankins did run out of the courtroom, Johnson said. But when she later inspected the situation, “the chair wasn’t soiled and there was no liquid around her,” Johnson said. “It’s very suspicious to me.”

Johnson’s account of what happened is contradicted by an incident report written by DeKalb Sheriff’s Deputy A. Owens, who was in the courtroom that day. The report was obtained from the Sheriff’s Office by the AJC through a Georgia Open Records Act request.

Owens said he saw Hankins squirming in her chair, raising a finger to get the judge’s attention and appearing to say she needed a restroom break. “Judge Johnson shook her head from left to right as if she was saying, not at this time,” Owens wrote.

Minutes later, Owens said, he saw Hankins holding up a legal pad with “bathroom” written on it.

“Feeling uncomfortable being placed in an awkward situation, I wrote Judge Johnson a note explaining Mrs. Hankins would like to use the restroom,” Owens wrote. “Judge Johnson responded by writing to me that she could wait.”

Blake’s murder case ended in a mistrial. In her court filing, Hankins said Kenner, her boss, had offered the judge “an informal opportunity” to remove herself from the case, but Johnson refused to do so.

Johnson did later withdraw from the case, entering the recusal order on July 18, the same day Hankins’ motion was filed.

Johnson has retained attorney Lester Tate, a former member of the JQC, to represent her in the ongoing investigation.

“Judge Johnson has always attempted to treat any litigant, juror or lawyer who appears before her with the utmost dignity,” Tate said Monday. “Here you you have a lawyer and judge trying to communicate passing notes through a courtroom deputy about a bathroom break during the course of a murder trial, and at the very moment that a key witness’s statement is being played. It’s certainly not shocking that there was a miscommunication.”

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