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House study committee sharply critical of JQC, proposes more changes

A House study committee on Wednesday excoriated — in writing — a state judicial watchdog agency that will be abolished and refashioned in a few weeks.

But the chairman of the House Special Study Committee on Judicial Qualifications Reform promised changes will be made next year to make the new Judicial Qualifications Commission “vital and important” again and no longer an “embarrassment.”

“Recent acts by certain members of the JQC have caused the JQC to substantially lose its credibility and capacity to perform its work,” according to very pointed 10-page report by the House Special Study Committee on Judicial Qualifications Commission Reform.

The report included four recommendations for tweaking the new law that will govern the commission starting Jan. 1: allow members to remove a fellow commissioner who acts inappropriately, open some meetings and records to the public, limit investigations mostly to cases presented at a JQC meeting and provide for discipline of commissioners.

“We needed to do something about a commission that was not operating properly,” said study committee chairman and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs.

Much of the harsh language in the report centered on complaints made during committee meetings last summer and fall about former JQC Chairman Lester Tate, who was appointed by the State Bar of Georgia.

“I’m not surprised,” Tate said of the report. Tate said he has said many times that the study committee was a “sham,” noting that it was created after lawmakers had approved legislation to remake the commission instead of before.

The document also complained of leaks to the media about pending cases and about the JQC’s investigative methods.

“I will never argue the end justifies the means,” study committee member State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said of testimony she heard about tactics used to force out of office some of the six dozen judges removed in the past seven years.

In one of the hearings, Bartow County Probate Court Judge Mitchell Scoggins said Tate, a Cartersville attorney, had sent the agency’s investigator, now commission board member Richard Hyde, to “shake things up.” Tate said he recused himself from anything involving Scoggins once he had reported a problem he encountered when representing a client in Scoggins’ court.

Scoggins told the study committee Hyde threatened to “shut down the probate court” if employees didn’t provide records, and he went through papers on the judge’s desk. Hyde, however, told the committee he was doing a “routine courtroom inspection I was asked to perform” and he sat on the judge’s bench to get the judge’s perspective.

Almost 63 percent of voters on Nov. 8 said the independent seven-member JQC should be abolished and replaced with a commission controlled by the Legislature.

So on Jan. 1, a newly configured commission will take over. That commission will include two members appointed by the speaker of the House, two members appointed by the lieutenant governor, two judges named by the Georgia Supreme Court and one member named by the governor. A spokesman said Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle will name his two appointees before the end of December. The timing for the other appointments was not immediately known.

Willard said after the meeting it was unlikely the State Bar Association could get seats on the commission even if it the board is expanded to nine or 12 members.

Tate, who was appointed by the bar, questioned why the study committee didn’t call to its meetings many of the judges removed from office.

“They didn’t call their colleague serial sexual harasser (state Rep.) Johnnie Caldwell to testify,” Tate said. Caldwell, a Republican from Thomaston, was elected to the House two years after he resigned from the Superior Court in the Griffin Circuit as the JQC began investigating allegations that he made sexually suggestive comments to a female attorney.

Tate said if the committee had wanted to make a legitimate review of the JQC and its past they would have called Caldwell to testify and discussed other judges who had left the bench in light of a commission investigation. Tate listed examples such as the former Enotah Judicial Circuit judge who pretended to offer his pistol to an uncooperative witness and a Murray County magistrate sentenced to eight years in federal prison for orchestrating a plot to plant drugs on a woman shortly after she accused him of propositioning her.

Though a law governing the new commission is already in place, Willard said he expects more changes as the 2017 General Assembly addresses mistakes in the new law and expands the size of the commission.

“The (existing) JQC is one body, which as a whole both conducts the investigations and then determines the guilt of innocence of a judge,” the report said. “This fundamental structural problem necessitated the JQC being reformed.”

In short, one part of the commission will investigate complaints against judges, and another part will adjudicate the cases.

Critics, however, insisted that the reason for the push to recreate the JQC was former judges, ousted by the commission, who complained to key legislators that they were unfairly persecuted by JQC.

The report addressed complaints from some of those judges, including one who was indicted on charges she lied to the JQC.

Cynthia Mellow, DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Cynthia Becker before she married in 2015, was charged last year in Cobb County with six felonies and a misdemeanor, but the case against her was dropped when she agreed to never again sit on the bench.

“The JQC used statements made at informal meetings as leverage against judges by disseminating the statements to prosecutors to pursue criminal indictments against judges who did not agree with the JQC’s accusations,” the report said, referring to Mellow and another former judge.

“Judges, understandably, no longer trust the JQC to fairly investigate and adjudicate complaints against them or to provide them any form of meaningful due process prosecutors to pursue criminal indictments,” the report said. “… Judges ensure the pubic has a right to due process and should therefore also have the right to due process and not be pressured into dropping that right by extrajudicial means.”

It cited “certain personnel (who are) stepping down, and criticized “such persons’ behavior, practices and personal vendettas.”

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