Ex-chiefs offer option in defense of Georgia judicial watchdog

Two former directors of the state agency that investigates judges defended the Judicial Qualifications Commission before a key legislative committee Thursday, but they also conceded there was room for improvement.

Voters are being asked in November to give the Legislature power over the JQC in a move critics call a political power grab. The committee was set up to consider ways to reincarnate the agency that investigates allegations of unethical behavior in the state’s judiciary.

The JQC has won praise for its handling of judicial investigations in the past, but lawmakers began proposing changes after several judges were forced off the bench. More than five dozen have lost their jobs since 2007.

One of the co-sponsors of the bills proposing the change, state Rep. Johnnie Caldwell Jr., R-Thomaston, was among the judges the JQC investigated. Caldwell resigned from the Griffin Judicial Circuit in 2010 after being accused of making rude, sexually suggestive comments to a female attorney.

Under the measure before voters in November, two of the three appointments the State Bar of Georgia now has to the JQC would go to the Legislature, and the governor would get the other one. Some critics have said that House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, backed the change because it would ding the State Bar, where he has had a complaint pending against him for two years.

State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, the chairman of the House Special Study Committee on Judicial Qualifications Commission Reform, said Thursday that “we’re not trying to destroy the commission.”

But Willard, a lawyer, said the Legislature needs some control over the seven JQC members. Currently, the Georgia Supreme Court, the governor and the State Bar of Georgia make the appointments. Lawmakers said it was dangerous to not have legislative oversight.

Willard said the JQC takes complaints, investigates them, decides whether there is any wrongdoing and then determines punishment for judges if it finds they have behaved unethically. Punishment can range from a private letter chastising the errant judge to removal from the bench.

“The JQC is serving as prosecutor, jury and the judge,” Willard said. “Surely this raises questions of fairness and impartiality.”

Former Executive Directors Ronnie Joe Lane and Jeff Davis suggested the agency be split in two, with one group investigating complaints and a separate one using those investigations to determine whether there is wrongdoing and what punishment should be meted out.

Cartersville attorney and former JQC Chairman Lester Tate said lawmakers merely reacted to griping from judges and former judges who don’t like the panel’s independence

“What you have here are judges who have complained to their legislators,” said Tate, who resigned from the commission earlier this year over the issue.

Tate, whose conduct was questioned during the legislative meeting, said lawmakers are asking voters to give them control of the JQC.

“It’s not supposed to be a system where judges tight with legislators get a pass,” he said.

The most recent JQC executive director, Mark Dehler, refused to appear before the committee, writing in a five-page letter to Willard that he had “no interest in being a part of your ploy.”

Dehler, who resigned last month, said he feared committee members would use the opportunity to critique his job performance.

“I do not have faith that the special study committee genuinely has an honest interest in trying to solve a problem,” Dehler wrote. “Instead, I believe that the special study committee is really trying to find ways to make the JQC look bad in order to justify what the General Assembly, at the urging of you and others, has already done — setting the stage to dismantle a constitutionally created judicial branch agency.”

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