Ga. Senate backs effort to close disciplinary proceedings for judges

A measure that would clean house at Georgia’s judicial watchdog agency and allow it to be even more secretive about its efforts to weed out bad judges narrowly gained legislative approval late Tuesday over the objections of bipartisan critics who said it would jeopardize the judiciary’s independence.

House Bill 808, and a related constitutional amendment, would overhaul the seven-member Judicial Qualifications Commission, created 40-plus years ago to investigate complaints against judges. An amendment tacked on last week would also shut the public out of a judge’s disciplinary hearing before the JQC for the first time.

The measure is now pending in the House, which is set to consider it Thursday — the final day of the legislative session.

Open government advocates say the measure is bad for the public, which can credit JQC investigations with forcing more than five dozen judges from the bench since 2007. That includes Johnnie Caldwell Jr., who resigned as a judge in the Griffin Judicial Circuit in 2010 after being accused of making rude, sexually suggestive comments to a female attorney.

Caldwell, who won a seat in the state House two years later, is co-sponsoring two of three pieces of legislation seeking changes to the agency.

The bill’s chief sponsor, House Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, said he’ll push to ensure the commission remains transparent when it returns to the House.

“I’m going to be sure we don’t step back as far as the public’s right to know,” Willard told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The constitutional amendment gained final approval in the House shortly before midnight by a 120-40 vote, the exact number of “yes” votes needed to get it on the ballot in November. In the Senate earlier, HR 1131 at first failed to get the two-thirds margin in the Senate by one vote. State Sen. Josh McKoon and another Republican joined with Democrats to raise concerns.

“This is driven by personal animus against people on the commission,” McKoon said. “We should not be amending the constitution in a fit of pique or because someone has lost their temper.”

Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson called it “pure politics” and noted that the commission’s makeup will be transformed in a few years anyways with new appointments.

“The independent method has lasted for decades,” Henson said.

After a roughly two-hour delay, however, Senate Republicans returned to revive the bill. This time, they came back with state Sen. Marty Harbin, who initially didn’t support the bill.

Currently, complaints are kept confidential until the JQC gives notice of formal proceedings against a judge or the complaint is resolved or closed. Commission members will neither confirm nor deny before that stage whether a complaint has been filed or an investigation is being conducted.

Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Dean Burke, who introduced the amendment to close disciplinary hearings to the public, said it was needed to “ensure that false and malicious complaints against a judge would not be made public until the findings of the JQC are considered valid by their processes.”

Transparency advocates have raised the alarm. Stephen Bright, the president and senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, said “turning the JQC into a star chamber that operates in secret will only undermine confidence in Georgia’s judiciary.”

And Hyde Post, a past president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the rewrite “would cloak everything in secrecy.”

The measure that failed, House Resolution 1113, would ask voters this fall to amend the state constitution to dissolve the current JQC and allow the General Assembly to re-create it.

A separate plan, House Resolution 1363, would create a committee of lawmakers to investigate the current JQC and grant it unprecedented power to subpoena witnesses. They would be charged with focusing on the JQC’s handling of recent investigations of former Judges Cynthia Becker of DeKalb County and Amanda Williams of Brunswick.

The subpoenas would have to be signed by House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican attorney from Blue Ridge who has been under investigation by the State Bar of Georgia.

Becker was indicted on six felonies and one misdemeanor in August 2015, but the charges were dropped four days later. She was accused of lying to JQC officials when asked why she didn’t grant bond to former DeKalb County School Superintendent Crawford Lewis after she sentenced him to 12 months in jail.

Becker signed a consent order agreeing not to pursue another judgeship and acknowledged in writing that she had unintentionally made erroneous statements, her attorney said at the time.

The treatment of drug court defendants by Williams, a former Superior Court judge in Brunswick, was the basis of an episode of “This American Life” with Ira Glass. Lindsey Dills told Glass she forged two checks on her father’s checking account for a combined $100 and spent more than five years in drug court, including 14 months behind bars.

Williams resigned in early 2012, shortly after the JQC filed formal charges. The charges were later dropped, and she agreed not to seek another judgeship.

Lester Tate, the chairman of the JQC, said lawmakers who are upset about Williams’ case introduced legislation that is “a drastic overreaction and spot-on why judicial conduct investigations and politics don’t mix.”

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