Judge to stay on APS test-cheating case

Judge Jerry Baxter can continue to preside over the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating case, a fellow Fulton County judge ruled Tuesday, rejecting claims that Baxter’s actions had created an improper perception of bias.

In recent motions, the remaining 13 defendants in the racketeering conspiracy case had sought to disqualify Baxter. Defense attorneys contended Baxter improperly tried to influence an appeal of one of his pretrial rulings and then inappropriately defended his actions in the news media.

After the motions were filed, Baxter suspended proceedings in the case so the matter could be randomly assigned another judge. Superior Court Judge Shawn LaGrua, who got the assignment, decided Tuesday that Baxter can stay on the high-profile case.

The APS defendants stand indicted for allegedly participating in a racketeering conspiracy to falsely inflate test scores on standardized tests. So far, 21 defendants initially charged in the indictment have pleaded guilty and received sentences of probation. The remaining 13 defendants are scheduled to go to trial on Aug. 11.

Benjamin Davis, a lawyer for former APS regional director Tamara Cotman, filed the first recusal motion after the Court of Appeals disclosed in an order that Baxter had made “multiple calls” to the court urging quick action on Cotman’s pretrial appeal and a motion by the prosecution to dismiss it. By doing this, Baxter was improperly trying to influence the outcome of the appeal in favor of the state, Davis contended.

But this was not a fair reading of the appeals court’s disclosure, LaGrua said. “There is nothing in the record to suggest that Judge Baxter did anything other than encourage the Court of Appeals to move quickly with whatever ruling it was going to make.”

The APS defendants also said Baxter should be removed because he improperly defended himself in interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Daily Report, a legal publication.

Baxter told the publications he called the appeals court because hundreds of prospective jurors were about to be summoned for the APS trial and he wanted to know how long the court would take to decide Cotman’s appeal. He also told the Daily Report that he believed Cotman’s lawyer was engaging in “game playing to delay the case.”

But LaGrua said she believed Baxter’s statements demonstrated neither bias nor prejudice and would not prevent him from being impartial moving forward.

LaGrua said she did not take her task lightly, noting that judicial integrity was a state interest of the highest order. At the same time, she said, “allowing unnecessary, unjustified recusals (of judges) to occur can be just as damaging to the integrity of the judiciary.”

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