Ga. Legislature Considers Judge Misconduct Hearing Reform | WABE 90.1 FM

Ga. Legislature Considers Judge Misconduct Hearing Reform

Mar 24, 2016

Multiple judges in Georgia within the last decade have been accused of misconduct, many in cases of a sexual nature, according to a list compiled by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2010. 

“We do not want our judges harassing litigants or jurors, or presiding over cases when one of the lawyers is a sexual partner of the judge,” said Stephen Bright, president and senior council at the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Bright is referring to the case of former Fayette County Chief Superior Court Judge Paschal English, who was found having sex with a public defender in a parked car.

The Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), established in 1972, is a watchdog over the state’s judges – a sort-of court for judges only.

Right now, the cases it hears based on allegations of misconduct are only public once the watchdog group holds a hearing. But legislation pending in the Georgia General Assembly would further secrecy, and only make misconduct allegations public if a judge is found guilty of an ethical violation.

“It would be unconscionable for a judge to engage in sexual harassment and that be kept secret from the public, and for whatever discipline imposed on the judge to be kept secret from the public,” Bright said. “That’s why this secrecy is totally inappropriate.”

Leaders in the Georgia House of Representatives say they want to weaken confidentially protections in the proposal before it’s passed.

But Republican Dean Burke, the chairman of the Senate Ethics committee, says judges make tough decisions, like sending people to jail, and secrecy is important.

“If we made public the process for every complaint against a judge, who would want to be a judge?” he asked the Senate Tuesday before they passed the bill. “I think the judges in our state deserve some degree of protection against malicious and false complaints.”

Changes to the JQC following the 2016 legislative session could be about more than just the secrecy of allegations.  

A proposed constitutional amendment that would recreate the JQC in a different form barely passed the House and Senate late Tuesday night, after Republicans appeared to make a deal with Atlanta Democrat Donzella James to secure her vote.

Immediately following a second vote on the JQC measure where James switched from a “Nay” to “Yeah,” a constitutional amendment she strongly supports to create the city of South Fulton was brought up before the Senate and quickly passed.

The potential changes coming from a legislative package include giving the Georgia Speaker of the House and Lieutenant Governor the right to appoint a member each to the JQC and moving the charter for the JQC from the constitution to general state law.