Pro­posed amend­ment would over­haul ju­di­cial watch­dog agency

The Standard Journal - - LOCAL -

AT­LANTA (AP) — Ge­or­gia vot­ers will de­cide in Novem­ber whether the in­de­pen­dent state agency that in­ves­ti­gates al­le­ga­tions of wrong­do­ing by judges should be over­hauled and es­sen­tially placed un­der con­trol of the Leg­is­la­ture.

The ques­tion about the Ju­di­cial Qual­i­fi­ca­tions Com­mis­sion is one of four pro­posed statewide con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments on the gen­eral elec­tion bal­lot. The com­mis­sion was cre­ated by con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment in 1972. It is re­spon­si­ble for in­ves­ti­gat­ing com­plaints of eth­i­cal mis­con­duct by judges and for dis­ci­plin­ing them. It also has au­thor­ity to is­sue ad­vi­sory opin­ions on ap­pro­pri­ate ju­di­cial con­duct.

Com­mis­sion ac­tions have led to the re­moval of more than five dozen judges over the last decade. Com­mis­sion mem­ber and for­mer in­ves­ti­ga­tor Richard Hyde said he's seen cases in­volv­ing judges who have sex­u­ally as­saulted women, used drugs, writ­ten racist notes dur­ing trial, be­lit­tled a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence vic­tim and pointed a gun at peo­ple in the court­room.

Many of the de­tails never be­come pub­lic be­cause the judges of­ten choose to re­sign or re­tire once con­fronted with the al­le­ga­tions rather than hav­ing the is­sue han­dled pub­licly, Hyde said.

The mea­sure pro­poses abol­ish­ing the ex­ist­ing com­mis­sion and al­low­ing the Leg­is­la­ture to cre­ate a new com­mis­sion.

Its sup­port­ers have raised con­cerns some judges' due process rights have been vi­o­lated, say­ing the com­mis­sion needs more over­sight. Crit­ics called the pro­posal a power grab and a po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated at­tack on a con­sti­tu­tion­ally cre­ated watch­dog agency whose in­de­pen­dence is cru­cial.

The av­er­age cit­i­zen likely hasn't even heard of the com­mis­sion, but crit­ics and sup­port­ers of the pro­posed amend­ment agree it is an im­por­tant av­enue of re­course for those who feel a judge has be­haved un­eth­i­cally.

State Rep. Wen­dell Wil­lard, a Sandy Springs Repub­li­can and chair of the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, shep­herded the pro­posed amend­ment and ac­com­pa­ny­ing leg­is­la­tion through the Leg­is­la­ture after hear­ing of sev­eral cases in which he be­lieves the com­mis­sion abused its power and mis­treated judges. He also heads a study com­mit­tee formed to in­ves­ti­gate the com­mis­sion and rec­om­mend changes.

Wil­lard said he's con­cerned that the same peo­ple re­ceive com­plaints, in­ves­ti­gate them, de­ter­mine whether there was wrong­do­ing and then de­cide on pun­ish­ment in cases of al­leged ju­di­cial mis­con­duct, a con­cern that has been echoed by at least two cur­rent com­mis­sion mem­bers.

"This raises is­sues of fair­ness, im­par­tial­ity and due process," Wil­lard said dur­ing a study com­mit­tee meet­ing.

Crit­ics say the mea­sure was passed hur­riedly with­out ad­e­quate con­sid­er­a­tion of so­lu­tions for the com­mis­sion's short­com­ings. They also worry that well-con­nected judges could lean on leg­is­la­tors and jeop­ar­dize the agency's ef­fec­tive­ness.

"I find this to be a dan­ger­ous over­reach that may place judges in jeop­ardy based on the tem­per­a­ment of the po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees to the JQC," House Mi­nor­ity Leader Stacey Abrams, an At­lanta Demo­crat and op­po­nent of the amend­ment, said in an emailed state­ment.

Cur­rently the com­mis­sion in­cludes two judges se­lected by the Ge­or­gia Supreme Court; three lawyers ap­pointed by the State Bar of Ge­or­gia; and two peo­ple who don't be­long to the State Bar and who are ap­pointed by the gover­nor. The com­mis­sion­ers choose their own chair.

Un­der ac­com­pa­ny­ing leg­is­la­tion set to take ef­fect in Jan­uary if the amend­ment passes, there would still be seven mem­bers, but the State Bar would lose its di­rect ap­point­ment power.

In­stead, the state Supreme Court would pick two judges, the gover­nor would choose one lawyer who would be chair, and the speaker of the House and the lieu­tenant gover­nor would each choose one lawyer and one non-lawyer. All ap­point­ments would also need state Se­nate ap­proval.

But none of that is set in stone. The Leg­is­la­ture would have the au­thor­ity to make changes and Wil­lard has said that's likely. He said he's await­ing rec­om­men­da­tions from a group headed by state Supreme Court Jus­tice David Nah­mias that is work­ing on rewrit­ing the com­mis­sion's rules for the first time since its cre­ation more than 40 years ago. Among other things, it's look­ing at rec­om­men­da­tions for the com­mis­sion's struc­ture, in­clud­ing ex­pand­ing the num­ber of com­mis­sion­ers and cre­at­ing sep­a­rate in­ves­tiga­tive and hear­ing pan­els.

The pro­posed amend­ment also says it would "al­low the Ju­di­cial Qual­i­fi­ca­tions Com­mis­sion to be open to the pub­lic in some man­ner."

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