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Panel Says Athens Judge Should Apologize for Berating Bondsman

Superior Court Judge Eric Norris. Credit: Athens-Clarke County Unified Government

A judicial watchdog panel recently recommended that Superior Court Judge Eric Norris should publicly apologize for berating a local bail bondsman who criticized him on social media.

According to the Judicial Qualifications Commission, Norris violated the state’s judicial code of conduct by calling the bondsman, Nathan Owens, into his office, along with another bondsman, John Elliott, who served as an intermediary between them. There, an armed deputy forced them to put their cellphones into a box, then Norris confronted Owens about social media posts Owens had made, and would not allow Owens to leave when he requested an attorney.

“I just made a mistake. It was a bad mistake,” Norris said at a 2021 hearing. “I lost my cool.”

Owens had denounced Norris in several Facebook posts for declaring a mistrial in a 2019 rape case and allowing the defendant to walk free on his own recognizance rather than post bail pending a retrial. A jury had deadlocked, with 11 in favor of acquittal and one voting guilty. The defendant later missed a subsequent court hearing. A second trial also resulted in hung jury.

Norris said he was upset that Owens referred to a “rapist on the loose” in his posts when the defendant had not been convicted.

The JQC’s three-member hearings panel unanimously found Norris at fault, but one member thought his punishment should be more severe, according to the AJC. Atlanta lawyer Jamala McFadden said Norris should also be reprimanded in open court.

The Georgia Supreme Court will make the final decision on the JQC’s recommendation.

Former Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Norris to the bench in 2016. He won a full term in 2018, and in 2020 his fellow judges on the Western Circuit, comprised of Clarke and Oconee counties, elected him chief judge.