Mack Crawford, former Superior Court judge in the Griffin Judicial Circuit, who stepped down amid charges that he stole thousands of dollars.
Photo: AJC file
Photo: AJC file

OPINION: A judicial circuit so sordid, it should be a crime

Ten years ago, I headed south to the Griffin Judicial Circuit to cover a brewing scandal in which two of the district’s four Superior Court judges had to resign suddenly in disgrace.

The sordid escapade centered around a bitter court case and the proclivities of two veteran judges, to wit: Judge Johnnie Caldwell was accused of repeatedly harassing a woman lawyer with crude sexual comments. I mean really raunchy stuff that would make a salty bailiff blush.

And then Judge Paschal English — who was beloved as “Pappy” on the TV show “Survivor” — pulled the rip cord after it was revealed he was having a fling with a public defender who routinely appeared in his courtroom. A cop caught them having sex in a car.

The small-town ties, the conflicts, the secretive doings and the raging gossip all turned this circuit, which includes Fayette, Spalding, Pike and Upson counties, into a version of another old TV show: “Laugh-in.”

Former Fayette County Chief Judge Paschal English, who abruptly resigned amid revelations he was having an affair with an assistant public defender. (credit: MARLENE KARAS / AJC file)
Photo: MARLENE KARAS / AJC file

Well, they’re not done in the Griffin Circuit, not by a long shot. In fact, this one might be script worthy.

In 2010, Superior Court Judge Mack Crawford, a former state legislator and mule dealer (No, I am not joking) was appointed by the governor after the other two judges were bounced. This month, Crawford tendered his resignation in a sweet plea deal that let him largely off the hook and leaves the door open for him to get back on the bench.

What was Judge Crawford pleading to? Well, he was charged with stealing $15,675 that was lying around in the court’s registry and using the money to pay off some debts. He repaid the money once the GBI started snooping around but was still charged with a felony in late 2018.

However, the state backed off this month and let him offer an Alford plea to a misdemeanor theft charge. An Alford, as I recently wrote, is a guilty-free guilty plea in which you admit to the crime, sort of, and acknowledge the government might have enough to get you.

Crawford will undergo 12 months of unsupervised, fee-exempt probation, but his lawyer says they might try to get that ended after six months. Crawford also was accorded first offender status, meaning all this will largely go away — it’ll be like it never happened — if he doesn’t ride to the courthouse on a mule and wave a pistol in somebody’s face.

The judge, who was suspended with pay in 2018 and then reinstated in some quirk of the law late last year, has agreed to resign as judge on March 1, which means he will apparently be paid until then. According to his plea, he “can’t apply for, run for, or serve as a judge in any court while on probation.”

That makes sense. You really don’t want a judge sitting on the bench while on probation. Even in the Griffin Judicial Circuit.

The plea deal was engineered by local defense attorney Virgil Brown, who likes to fly a pirate’s flag outside his law practice after court victories. My guess is the skull and crossbones proudly flapped after this one.

Brown retired from practice after that case, which seems fitting. End on a high note, they say.

The Georgia attorney general’s office, which rolled over like a sleeping baby on this one, chose not to say a lot.

A spokeswoman said, “Criminal plea agreements are very difficult, and because they are negotiated based on the specific facts and circumstances of each case, sometimes one’s perception of perfect justice may not prevail.”

Perception? Why don’t we go down to Griffin and pilfer $15,675 and see if we can cut this deal.

Crawford’s lawyer, Brown, insists “he didn’t steal anything” and only copped the plea because of the off chance the judge might get convicted. Word on the street was the attorney general’s office worried a hometown jury would send Crawford home smiling to his mules.

“I had a 90 percent chance of winning,” said Brown, “but I’ve seen people with a 90 percent chance get convicted.”

Last year, while Crawford awaited trial on his criminal charge, the state’s judicial watchdog panel held a hearing on the matter and recommended that he be removed from the bench.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) hearing committee wrote that Crawford made “conscious, consistent decisions to act in a matter inconsistent with the norms of our judiciary,” adding that “deliberate choices were made then that now have consequences.”

Or maybe not.

Crawford then brought in Roy Barnes, the former governor who’s an old country lawyer himself from May-retta, Georgia. Barnes argues that the JQC’s recommendation that Crawford be terminated should be thrown out because the JQC is not legal. Barnes insists that JQC board appointments made in 2018 were invalid because they were not submitted to the state Senate for confirmation until after a legal deadline.

JQC Director Chuck Boring said those appointments were handed in on time to the Senate secretary and the lieutenant governor, who is the Senate’s grand poobah.

For years, the JQC had a solid record of plucking skunky judges (dozens of them) from the bench. But the reason it was appointing new members in 2018 was because the state Legislature passed a law to restructure and weaken the oversight body. Some people, it seems, thought the JQC was running roughshod.

State Rep. Johnnie Caldwell, R-Thomaston. (BOB ANDRES / AJC 2016 file photo)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

One of the leaders of the effort to defang the JQC was state Republican Rep. Johnnie Caldwell, the same fellow mentioned at the top of my column. You remember, he was the robed fellow who had his way with unsavory words. And he was unhappy about how he’d been treated.

When I mentioned to lawyer Brown that the JQC thought Crawford stole money, he shot back, “The JQC might not even exist after ol’ Roy gets through with them.”

He added, “Roy said he needs a mule. Roy’s a pretty good farmer himself.”

I’m sure a mule would be a fine payment for legal services rendered. An ass would be better.

Roy was out doing some country lawyerin’ in another courtroom Tuesday, so I texted him to ask if Crawford wants to be a judge again after he gets off probation.

Barnes responded, “Don’t know yet.”

Ya just can’t make this stuff up.

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