Is effort to replace judicial watchdog needed or political payback?

Is effort to replace judicial watchdog needed or political payback?

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM


Georgia voters on Nov. 8 will decide whether to amend the state’s Constitution to tear down and rebuild the commission that oversees judges’ conduct.

The supporters of Amendment 3 say it’s a sensible effort to gain control of a power-drunk Judicial Qualifications Commission that answers to no one and unfairly targets judges.

RELATED: Other constitutional amendments on the ballot in Georgia

“This is not a political grab for power,” said state Rep. Wendell Willard, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a chief sponsor of the bill authorizing the amendment. “The people who were being appointed … misused some of the powers given them. I, for one, thought there needed to be a reining in.”

But opponents of the measure say it is precisely a political grab for power, orchestrated by legislators who are friends and allies of judges who were targeted by the commission.

“It’s pretty stunning how blatant and political this power grab is,” said Bryan Long, executive director of Better Georgia. “These lawmakers must think the voters are stupid and I hope the voters will prove them wrong.”

One of the amendment’s House sponsors, state Rep. Johnnie Caldwell Jr., R-Thomaston, was himself a Superior Court judge forced from office by the commission over inappropriate sexual comments he made to female lawyers. In 2010, accompanying his hand-scrawled resignation from the bench, Caldwell wrote and signed a pledge that he would “never seek or accept judicial office again.”

Instead, he ran for the state House in 2012 and won.

In 2016, Caldwell co-sponsored bills that would abolish the independent Judicial Qualifications Commission and replace it with a commission controlled by the Legislature. As a judge, Caldwell was once accused in court testimony of sticking his tongue into the mouth of a female attorney during a University of Georgia tailgating party. He did not respond to a message seeking comment that was sent to his House email account.

The JQC is a tiny, obscure agency rarely noticed by the public. But some say it is evidence of lawmakers and judges wanting political payback. Since 2007, more than six dozen judges have resigned or been removed, including Rep. Caldwell.

“It’s the way the Legislature operates,” said state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who opposed putting the JQC under the General Assembly’s thumb. “People have a grievance of some kind and they are going to use their authority as legislators to deal with it… None of this is about the underlying public policy or really trying to fix a public policy (issue).”

“I have never seen such a naked political power play in my life,” McKoon said.

The newly formed group Georgians for Judicial Integrity is running a grassroots effort to defeat Amendment No. 3, depending primarily on word of mouth.

“We believe the JQC needs to be independent in order to keep abusive judges off the bench,” said Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. “We have seen how over the last 10 years the JQC has uprooted corruption, racism, nepotism and illegal behavior in the judiciary. In order to continue this critical work it must retain its independence. Amendment 3 introduces politics into a sphere where politics shouldn’t govern.”

And there is a similar grassroots effort to push the amendment.

State Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, took to Facebook, describing the proposed amendment as providing “checks and balances on an arm of state government that has run amok.”

If the amendment is approved, the current seven-member JQC will be abolished at midnight on Dec. 31 and replaced by one appointed by elected officials; four of seven will be named by the Legislature. “It’s not going to be disbanded. It’s going to be reconstituted,” Willard said.

Though the proposed amendment implies that the new JQC would become more transparent, the separate law that the 2016 Legislature passed laying out specifically how the JQC will operate actually makes the commission’s work more secretive. Willard, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the 2017 Legislature would fix that.

Willard said the legislative changes were crafted only to clamp down on a free-wheeling, arrogant agency that is not functioning at all now. It is not an attempt to protect judges or to give the Legislature more control, he said.

Former JQC Chairman Lester Tate said the proposed amendment is all about revenge.

“It’s dead in the water because the Legislature has destroyed it,” Tate said of the JQC. “It’s incredibly sad and amusing at the same time to watch them try to pull (this) sham.”

In the letter in which he resigned both as chairman and as a member of the commission, Tate wrote: “For some time now, certain individuals and groups within the judicial and other branches of government have sought to interfere with the commission’s work in ways that intrude upon its independence and hamper its day-to-day operations,” Tate wrote in his resignation letter.

“Routine disciplinary actions, based on solid precedent and designed to punish egregious conduct, have sparked intrusion from the legislative branch, merely because the disciplined judge or judges had powerful friends,” he continued. “Even efforts by the commission to bring under control a part-time independent contractor resulted in executive branch machinations that made those efforts fruitless.”

Regardless of the vote Nov. 8, the current Judicial Qualifications Commission is, as Tate put it, dead in the water. Tate resigned as chairman last April. His replacement as chair, Judge Brenda Weaver, resigned in August. The JQC’s executive director, Mark Dehler, resigned in July.

It’s kind of chaos,” Willard said. “No investigator. No director. And lacking one commission member.”

RELATED: What’s on the ballot in Georgia