Prosecutors: APS judge should stay on case

Challenges by the remaining defendants in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating case to remove Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter should be rejected, Fulton County prosecutors said in a recently filed motion.

The requests to recuse Baxter from the case are misleading, were untimely filed and lack a legal basis to be granted, prosecutors said.

The recusal request, first filed by a lawyer for defendant Tamara Cotman, a former APS regional director, alleged that Baxter improperly contacted the Georgia Court of Appeals and tried to influence the outcome of Cotman’s pretrial appeal.

Cotman’s lawyer, Benjamin Davis, drew this accusation from a recent order the appeals court issued in Cotman’s case. The appeals court, while denying a prosecution request to dismiss Cotman’s appeal, included a footnote disclosing that Baxter had made “multiple phone calls” to the court’s clerk urging “quick action” on Cotman’s appeal and the prosecution’s motion.

Other APS defendants, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall, have joined in Davis’ motion or filed their own motions seeking to remove Baxter.

Baxter has suspended all proceedings in the case. The recusal motion has been assigned to Fulton Superior Court Judge Shawn LaGrua, who will soon decide whether Baxter should be removed or stay on the case. Baxter recently delayed the start of the trial until Aug. 11.

In a recent interview, Baxter said he was not trying to influence the appeals court but acknowledged calling the court’s clerk to find out the status of Cotman’s appeal.

“My intent was to find out how long it would take for them to make their decision, ” Baxter said. “Our jury clerk was about to send out summons for 1,500 jurors for a trial set to begin in early May. We were dealing with taxpayers’ dollars that I didn’t want to be wasted. I needed to know when the appeal would be decided.”

This week, in a motion filed by Special Assistant District Attorney John Floyd, Fulton prosecutors said this was understandable.

The case against the 13 defendants could take up to six months and, given the extensive publicity concerning the test-cheating scandal, it may be necessary to summon hundreds and hundreds of jurors, Floyd wrote. There are also a questions about courtroom logistics, security and scheduling, he said.

“Judge Baxter’s desire to handle this case as efficiently as possible … with a single trial, is not evidence of partiality,” Floyd wrote.

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