Torpy at Large: Revamped judicial watchdog must prove it’s no lapdog

The new and improved Judicial Protection Commission has been up and running for three months, and the first inkling of action from the group seems to indicate it’s working precisely as designed.

Judges can stop looking over their shoulders.

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Judge Brenda Weaver, who pushed to have a North Georgia newspaper publisher and a lawyer tossed in jail for snooping around her (public!) financial records, did nothing wrong, the commission says. So please move along, nothing to see here. In fact, the JPC last week scolded those who had the audacity to bring the complaints against the judge. And even those who wrote about them.

The agency was designed 45 years ago to go after bad judges and to sanction good judges when they strayed from accepted judicial decorum. It removed 66 wayward judges between 2007 and last year.

But legislators, including one who joined the General Assembly after getting chased from the bench by the commission, last year moved to have the JPC put under its control. The problem? Well, the judicial watchdog agency seemed to be doing too good a job.

Its official name is the Judicial Qualifications Commission or JQC. But the move to put the agency under the control of state legislators has caused some people to worry that putting politicians in charge of the disciplinary agency might neuter it.

So far, that seems to be true. So until they prove otherwise, I’ll call it the Judicial Protection Agency.

In the case of Judge Weaver, one might argue the commission comes across as a cheerleader.

What got the judge in a pickle was a strange small-town squabble, one the JPC's executive director told me seemed like a page out of the Hatfields and McCoys.

To sum it up, Mark Thomason, publisher of "The Fannin Focus," was trying to find out if Judge Weaver used public money to pay the lawyer fees of a court reporter after the newsman and the court reporter traded lawsuits.

Thomason filed an open records request to get documentation about checks he called “illegally cashed.” That didn’t work, so he got inventive and used a subpoena from ongoing litigation to demand the records from a bank. Both attempts irked the judge. And judges don’t like to get irked.

Next thing you know, Thomason is stopped by police on a highway, handcuffed, strip-searched and sleeping overnight on a concrete jailhouse floor. Upon release, he’s repeatedly tested for drugs.

His lawyer, Russell Stookey, got tossed in the pokey, too.

Mark Thomason, right, and his lawyer Russell Stookey at the Gilmer County courthouse in 2016. (Rhonda Cook / AJC)

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District Attorney Alison Sosebee, at the urging of Judge Weaver, brought charges against Thomason and Stookey, charging them with identity fraud. I might point out that filing an open records request and then using a subpoena seems to be a stupid way to defraud someone.

Nonetheless, the rascals needed to be punished in the minds of the judge and the DA, who clerked for the judge out of law school and then went to work for the judge’s husband. Also, she has to go before the judge all the time with her cases, so she must stay on the good side.

The charges were dropped against Thomason and Stookey, who later filed complaints with the JPC. Weaver was the chair of that organization at the time but stepped down. The Society of Professional Journalists and Fannin County Attorney Lynn Doss also filed complaints.

Judge Brenda Weaver (front and center) in 2014, when she and the others were members of the Judicial Qualifications Commission. From left: Lester Tate, Jeff Davis, Robert Ingram, Weaver, Richard Hyde and Judge John Allen.

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Well, recently, the newly reconstituted commission handed down a decision clearing the judge of any wrongdoing.

The JPC said Weaver acted properly and was simply getting to the bottom of the matter with the publisher wrongly using subpoenas to get her office’s bank records. No, she wasn’t directing the DA to arrest Thomason and his attorney out of anger or anything, she was simply a victim pursuing her rights.

The board talked to the prosecutor. She told them that the judge, her mentor, didn’t influence her. The JPC board did not call the publisher for his side.

The JPC then spanked the news orgs who came out in defense of the small-town publisher, who has since closed his paper.

They “attempted to portray Judge Weaver as mounting some kind of attack on the freedom of the press,” the JPC said in its report, adding, “Nothing could be further from the truth. … Calling oneself a ‘journalist’ and ‘reporter’ should not be a cover for pursuing personal vendettas.”

“It’s a bad day for public confidence in our judiciary,” said Josh McKoon, a former Republican state senator who fought the changes to the commission and is running for secretary of state.

Ed Tolley, the board’s chairman, recused himself from the proceedings because he served on the JPC last year with Weaver. Oh, he also represented her during the FBI’s investigation, which yielded no charges.

“She had resigned from the board and asked me to represent her,” he said. There was no conflict of interest, he added, because he did not have a role in her recent case with the JPC.

But, I asked, didn’t it rub off on his fellow members that Tolley, the chairman, had already worked to give the judge the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval?

No, the JPC isn’t a club, Tolley said. The board members have “been around the block, they’re not influenced by what I think,” he said.

Weaver did have excellent counsel before the JPC. She was represented by Robert Ingram, its former chairman.

In an email to The AJC he said Weaver “has been unfairly vilified by political enemies based upon the unfounded and now disproven allegations.”

Ben Easterlin, the executive director of the commission, told me, “This is not a coverup or a whitewash. They tried to do the right thing in a difficult situation.”

Since July, the JPC has made no public actions. The last one listed on its website was in 2015. Remember, this is the commission that once took down 66 judges in a decade.

Easterlin said the board has removed three judges since July. He couldn’t say who; they all resigned quietly.

We’ll have to trust them on that one.