Torpy at Large: When a judge’s attitude seems prissy, minus the ‘r’

I suppose adult diapers should be optional for lawyers practicing in the DeKalb County courtroom of Superior Court Chief Judge Courtney Johnson.

Johnson was once described by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a “no-nonsense” judge, which I suppose is journalistic shorthand to identify judges who won’t let lawyers go take a pee.

Now the state judicial watchdog agency is investigating the judge amid allegations that she ignored a defense attorney’s requests to go to the bathroom, causing said attorney to ultimately let loose in her seat while listening to taped testimony.

The unfortunate lawyer in question, public defender Jan Hankins, is a competent and otherwise unafraid attorney. But she was seemingly so concerned that she’d catch Judge Johnson’s wrath if she ran out of the courtroom during a murder trial without permission that she held it in … until she no longer could.

Judge Johnson told AJC legal reporter Bill Rankin there was a “miscommunication” between her and Hankins, although the judge questioned whether there even had been an accident.

“I at no time told her she couldn’t go to the bathroom,” Johnson said, adding that she noticed that Hankins tried to get her attention “but I couldn’t hear her.”

Hankins, in an affidavit, said she raised her hand and mouthed the word “bathroom” to the judge as an audiotape played for the jury. Eleven minutes later, she wrote “Bathroom” real big on a piece of paper and handed it to the courtroom deputy. Johnson, she said, read the note but didn’t look back at her as Hankins wormed, squirmed and crossed her legs.

Twenty minutes later, the audiotape had problems and Johnson dismissed the jury, looked at Hankins and said, “You’re excused.” By then, it was too late. She was soaked.

Now, in this case, you have the word of a judge talking to a reporter versus the sworn statement of a lawyer. I don’t know whether the judge has given a statement to the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), which investigates when those in black robes commit no-nos. At the very least, someone here is confused. At worst, someone may be lying.

In this case I think you have a tie-breaker in Deputy A. Owens, who in a report said he saw Hankins “squirming” in her chair, raising a finger to get Johnson’s eye and appearing to mutter she needed a restroom break. “Judge Johnson shook her head from left to right as if she was saying, not at this time,” he wrote.

Later, Owens saw Hankins hold up a legal pad. “Bathroom,” it said.

“Feeling uncomfortable being placed in an awkward situation, I wrote Judge Johnson a note explaining Mrs. Hankins would like to use the restroom,” Owens wrote. “Judge Johnson responded by writing to me that she could wait.”

Let me note that for a deputy to contradict a judge is probably unprecedented. They take an oath that they’ll take a bullet for a judge. They’re grateful to be assigned to courtroom gigs. The job sure beats transporting surly prisoners or performing body searches back at the jail. So it would be shocking to see a deputy say anything to hurt a judge — unless he is simply telling a painful truth.

I asked Lester Tate, a former JQC member who is representing the judge, if the deputy’s report is damning to his client. No, he said, “eyewitness testimonies and memories are often different.”

The judge is mortified this happened in her courtroom, Tate said, adding, “Judge Johnson is adopting a policy if you need to go, then we’ll pick up where we left off.”

Hankins, however, alleges that Johnson didn’t seem too sorry about the accident, she merely checked to see whether the chair was wet.

The leading theory of why this happened is “Robe-itis,” the feeling of superiority that afflicts some judges after having people simpering around them and forever sucking up.

Having watched Judge Johnson during the two corruption trials of former DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis in 2014 and 2015, I can attest that she is not someone to be trifled with.

In those trials, Johnson — a former prosecutor and a judge since 2010 — batted around the defense lawyers like a lion playing with her prey. Ruling after ruling went for the prosecution, as did almost every single objection, point of order, complaint, whatever. She might have ruled for the defense once or twice out of perhaps 50 such decisions I witnessed, I just don’t remember it.

In the appeal after Ellis’ conviction, the defense said, “The prosecution took full advantage of the trial court’s readiness to grant virtually anything it asked for, even moving orally at one point to prevent Mr. Ellis and his wife from ‘holding hands,’ or ‘gazing at each other lovingly,’ with the trial court taking the opportunity to chastise the defense.”

The state Supreme Court agreed and kicked out the conviction, although Ellis had already done his time.

Dwight Thomas was one of the defense attorneys in the Ellis trial. He said he was “concerned from a professional standpoint” about how defense lawyers were treated by Johnson. “It was every aspect,” he told me. “The judge’s response, the interaction with defense, the tone, the demeanor. All of it.”

Lawyer Kemay Jackson, also on the defense team, said, “There’s a sense of pride when a person (on the bench) looks like you. But when that same person treats you with disdain, that’s disappointing.”

“I think she gets personal with attorneys,” Jackson said. “It’s more than her just being tough. It’s different with a judge demeaning you in the courtroom. I think the way she treated me emboldened the prosecution and made them feel they could do as they wanted.”

Civil rights icon and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young came to the Ellis trial to testify about the need to raise money for campaigning in politics. He left feeling like his pride was smacked upside the head.

“I have testified before the toughest of the tough and the meanest judges in the country,” he told me. “I have never felt so disrespected in a courtroom in my life.”

The verdict: Robe-itis maximus.

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