Rash judges bring disorder to court

Akeley-Alderman resigned March 30, shortly before the state’s judicial watchdog agency was about to file ethics charges against her. Among the expected complaints was that she met privately with another judge to speak up on behalf of a methamphetamine trafficker who had a case pending before the other judge.

Just 29 days earlier, then-Chief Judge David Barrett retired abruptly after he made national news for pulling out a handgun in his courtroom. He had pretended to offer his pistol to an uncooperative witness, saying if she wanted to kill her lawyer she could use his gun. Barrett was making a rhetorical point, but his method prompted an investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

You might think the exits, less than a month apart, of Barrett and Akeley-Alderman from the same judicial circuit would be unusual. They’re not.

In a span of just one week in April 2010, the Griffin Judicial Circuit, which includes Fayette County, lost two of its four judges to scandals, including one in which the chief judge was caught having sex with a public defender who had cases before him.

In just four months’ time in 2010, both of the Mountain Judicial Circuit’s judges left the bench in disgrace, including one after he was accused of going to Las Vegas with a woman whose divorce he’d signed.

Georgia has 49 judicial circuits and each has its own chief Superior Court judge. Since the beginning of 2010, six chief judges have stepped down while under investigation for ethical lapses. A seventh was reprimanded for a drunken-driving charge.

“Some people who should not be judges get in judicial office and think they can do anything,” said Stephen Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights and a Yale Law School professor. “This does not say anything good about these judges or the process that put them on the bench.”

On the other hand, he said, “It does indicate that the Judicial Qualifications Commission continues to do an outstanding job protecting Georgia from unethical, dishonest judges.”

The state needs a less-political, merit-based selection process of judges to ensure that more people appointed to the bench have the integrity and ethical standards to sit as a judge, Bright said.

In Georgia, a lawyer can become a Superior Court judge by defeating an incumbent in an election, winning an election for an open seat or being appointed by the governor when a vacancy becomes available. Georgia’s governor picks the members of the panel that screens candidates for judicial vacancies and sends him a short list of recommendations.

Although other states do not give the governor such control over the selection process, there have been no legislative proposals in recent years to change the way Georgia goes about appointing judges.

Atlanta lawyer Kenneth Shigley, president of the State Bar of Georgia, acknowledged that the steady stream of judges leaving the state’s bench doesn’t look good.

“All people are fallible, but we want judges to be a little less so.” Still, Shigley added, “the overwhelming majority of our judges are incredibly conscientious, true to their calling and doing just fine.”

Shigley suggested that Georgia could get a better pool of candidates for judgeships if there wasn’t such a big gap between the compensation enjoyed by lawyers in private practice and the salaries given state judges.

“It’s tough for lawyers in their prime to make the sacrifice for themselves and their families,” he said.

A Superior Court judge in Georgia makes a $120,252 annual salary, and some counties supplement their pay. In the five-county metro area, supplements range from $37,000 per judge in Clayton to $58,711 in Cobb, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Shigley said it would be too simplistic to suggest a direct correlation between lagging salaries and the unfortunate incidents of judicial misconduct. “There is also the possible factor of rising standards of conduct and a more active [Judicial Qualifications Commission] dealing with issues that would have been ignored or addressed privately in the past,” he said.

There is no question the Judicial Qualifications Commission, an independent state panel comprised of judges, lawyers and lay people, has been more aggressive in investigating judicial misconduct. A number of high-profile investigations pursued in recent years has also sparked a steady increase of complaints, from 337 in 2008 to 517 last year, Jeff Davis, the agency’s director, said. He predicted the commission will receive more than 700 complaints this year.

“The public is more empowered to complain when they see judges are held accountable for misconduct,” Davis said. “People realize that not only is there a place to file a complaint, but that we will take their complaints seriously.”

This past session, the Legislature boosted the commission’s budget by $100,000 to $512,000. To handle the increased case load, the commission will soon hire a new staff attorney to help with investigations.

The recent resignations of Barrett and Akeley-Alderman from the Enotah Judical Circuit left Murphy Miller as the last full-time judge on the bench - and the circuit’s third chief judge in only 30 days.

“It’s been stressful and real unfortunate,” said Miller, the son of former Gov. Zell Miller and a former public defender for the circuit. “But we’re managing to keep the doors of our courthouses open. I won’t say it’s been seamless, but we’re managing just fine.”

In January, Miller took up the task of starting up the circuit’s first mental health court. This month, he had to take over Barrett’s job as drug court judge, in addition to assuming the circuit’s administrative duties.

The Enotah circuit is split by the Blue Ridge Mountains, with Lumpkin and White counties on the southern side and Towns and Union counties on the other side of the mountain range. Having only one full-time judge presents logistical challenges for lawyers who may need to get an emergency motion, such as a temporary protective order, signed.

“If we need a judge to sign a bond order or an order for a psychiatric evaluation or if you are trying to arrange a time for a guilty plea, sometimes we don’t know where to go,” said Charles Brown, the circuit’s public defender. “We just want it to stabilize. We just want quality judges and fair hearings and hope the governor will make good appointments.”

The governor’s Judicial Nominating Commission is seeking nominees for the two Enotah vacancies by Friday and expects start interviews in May. That means to two vacancies should be filled by late spring.

Steve Ferrell, the court’s administrator, said one benefit of having a judicial circuit located in the heart of the Georgia mountains is that it’s not that difficult to get senior judges to agree to come to the area to fill in for a while. At least three - Fred Bishop, John Girardeau and Robert Mallis - are expected to help out, and Hugh Stone, who retired as the circuit’s chief judge in 2006, is already taking cases.

“I know we’ve taken a bite with the negative publicity,” Ferrell said. “But with our good reservoir of senior judges to tap into and with judge Miller’s determination to keep everything moving forward, we’re going to make it.”

Lawrence Sorgen, a Hiawassee lawyer with a general practice in the circuit, said the abrupt vacancies create uncertainty for both lawyers and their clients.

“It’s a real concern,” Sorgen said. “We don’t like losing judges, especially in this manner.”