There are roughly 2,000 judges in Georgia, serving at every level of the judicial system from the state Supreme Court all the way down to local magistrate judges. The great majority of them are honorable people who try to do a decent job of making sure justice is served in their courtrooms. But there are occasionally dishonest or emotionally disturbed people who have to be removed from their judgeships.
Over the past decade, more than 60 judges have left the bench because of their misconduct. One of the judges told a female lawyer handling a divorce case that she should drop her pants in a private display in the judge’s chambers. Another judge pulled out a handgun while presiding in court and told a female witness, “You might as well shoot your lawyer.” Another judge arranged to have evidence planted so that a woman was arrested on drug charges by local law enforcement officers after she refused to have sex with him. Another judge was caught having sex with an assistant public defender who had represented defendants in his courtroom.
These were judges who clearly were a danger to public safety and decency every day that they sat on the bench. They were removed from the judicial system largely as a result of investigations conducted by the Judicial Qualifications Commission.
The JQC is one of the smallest agencies in state government, but it has played an important role in weeding out people unfit to be dispensing justice. In many instances, the mere prospect of being hauled before the JQC and having their misdeeds exposed in a hearing is enough to persuade a judge under investigation to voluntarily resign. “When I tell them they’re entitled to a public trial, a light bulb seems to go on in their head,” said Richard Hyde, for several years the JQC’s chief investigator. “They don’t want a public trial.”
Judges are powerful people, however, and some of them started complaining to legislators. Among its investigations of judges, the JQC admittedly mishandled a couple of them involving Cynthia Becker, a former DeKalb County Superior Court judge, and Mitchell Scoggins, a Bartow County probate judge. “We still owe an apology to both of these people,” Hyde conceded at a legislative hearing.
Some lawmakers are using those two cases as an excuse to dismantle the JQC as an independent commission. They plan to replace it with an agency that is controlled by legislators and empowered to conduct its business secretly. The General Assembly passed a constitutional amendment that will be on the Nov. 8 election ballot. If voters approve it, that amendment will dissolve the current JQC and give legislators free rein to replace it.
You can figure out the legislative intent here by looking at the names of those who sponsored the constitutional amendment. They include state Rep. Johnnie Caldwell Jr. (R-Thomaston). Caldwell was one of the judges I referred to earlier, the one who made lewd, sexually suggestive remarks to a female attorney. After the JQC investigated him in 2010, Caldwell agreed to leave the bench immediately and never run for a judgeship again. That promise did not extend to running for the legislature, however, which Caldwell did in 2012 when he won his House seat.
Georgia needs an independent agency like the Judicial Qualifications Commission. Judges are some of the most powerful people in our political system, and unless monitored by an outside commission, bad judges will continue to sit on the bench.
If there are objections to the way the JQC handled a couple of cases, the best solution is to revise the rules governing the agency. You should not eliminate one of the best protections that citizens have against corrupt judges. Voters should vote no on this constitutional amendment.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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