Is politics or good policy a reason to replace judicial watchdog?


Is politics or good policy a reason to replace judicial watchdog?

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Current and former members of the Judicial Qualifications Commission accept the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s 2014 Freedom of Information Award. From left are other current and former JQC members, Lester Tate, Jeff Davis, Robert Ingram, Judge Brenda Weaver, Richard Hyde, Judge John Allen.

A grassroots group is pushing voters to check “no” on a ballot question next month that would upend the obscure agency that oversees Georgia’s judiciary, arguing that the wording of the proposed constitutional amendment is “misleading.”

At the same time, legislators say a change is needed to stop a rogue, dysfunctional agency that seems focused only on taking down judges rather than working to make the judiciary better. The only way to do that, advocates for Amendment 3 say, is to put the now-independent Judicial Qualifications Commission under the Legislature’s control.

“Amendment 3 on the November 8 ballot was written in an intentionally misleading way to confuse voters who believe in a fair, accountable, transparent justice system,” Georgians for Judicial Integrity wrote on its website. “This language is misleading. If this amendment is approved by voters, Georgia will have less oversight of and accountability for judges who abuse their power. We must preserve the independence and integrity of the JQC.”

The Legislature approved a proposed change to the Constitution earlier this year in light of a string of resignations from the bench, including two that led to indictments for misleading the JQC in interviews.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Windell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, who sponsored the resolution and the bill that laid out how the amendment would be implemented if it passes, the JQC has gone too far.

“This is not a political grab for power,” Willard said. “The people who were being appointed … misused some of the powers given them. I, for one, thought there needed to be a reining in.”

In the past seven years, the JQC has removed or encouraged resignations from more than six dozen judges.

If the amendment passes on Nov. 8, the existing JQC will be abolished and a new one created mostly by legislative appointment; Senate confirmation is required for all appointments regardless of who makes them. Though the proposed amendment promises a more transparent JQC, the state law that lays out how the tiny agency will operate and its parameters makes its doings more secret.

One of the amendment’s House sponsors, state Rep. Johnnie Caldwell Jr., R-Thomaston, was himself a Superior Court judge the JQC forced from office because inappropriate sexual comments he made to female lawyers. In 2010, accompanying his hand-scrawled resignation from the bench, Caldwell wrote and signed a pledge that he would “never seek or accept judicial office again.”

He was elected to the state House two years later.

These lawmakers must think the voters are stupid and I hope the voters will prove them wrong.” said Bryan Long, executive director of Better Georgia.

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