AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

How a defeated judge made it back to the bench

Judge Richard Winegarden's strange performance at a July 18 hearing in Jasper, Ga. , raised a lot of questions.

Chief among them was whether the Gwinnett County judge trampled the First Amendment when he kept media out of the courtroom for the beginning of the hearing and then questioned reporters before allowing them to observe the proceedings. Likely that's something for the Judicial Qualifications Commission to determine, if they choose.

But another question, asked by several readers, is how Winegarden got to Jasper in the first place.

Voters bounced the long-serving Gwinnett County Superior Court judge in 2008 in favor of attorney Karen Beyers. It's rare for an incumbent judge to lose a bid for re-election and the 2008 campaign was fought largely over Winegarden's judicial temperament. In 2012, Winegarden ran for a state court judgeship and lost that too in a race that inspired a blog dedicated to defeating him .

So how does a judge twice rejected by his own voters end up hearing cases in circuits all across north Georgia?

"As you know, there’s a need for senior judges in Georgia," Jane Hansen, spokeswoman for the Georgia Supreme Court, said in a statement to my colleague, AJC courts reporter and "Breakdown" podcast host Bill Rankin.

State law allows retired judges to take a "senior status" appointment once they retire. Senior judges can then hear cases on an ad hoc basis to help reduce case backlogs or to take cases that other judges cannot hear because of a conflict.

Judges who lose re-election can also become senior judges, but they have to get special permission from the Georgia Supreme Court. Winegarden applied for and got that permission earlier this year.

But even before the Supreme Court signed off, Winegarden had to get formally appointed by the governor. Gov. Nathan Deal took care of that last November .

According to Deal's office, the governor had no say in the matter. Winegarden met the state's minimum requirement for senior judge status and state law requires the governor to make the appointment in such cases.

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About the Author

Joyner’s column, AJC Watchdog, investigates topics in your community and Georgia.