Robin McDonald’s article poses the question of why the Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Commission has zapped so many judges this year. The simple answer is that they deserved it. But, read a little more, and the story is pretty disturbing. While the commission has taken out some judges who had it coming, I can’t say that its Star Chamber structure is exactly a good American idea. It’s also a little disappointing that it takes a Georgia judge actually getting indicted or acting like a character on Mad Men to get him removed, where plain old rudeness, unfairness, and reprehensible conduct on the bench has been ignored.
Put another way, it seems like it matters more to the JQC what a judge does in chambers with his zipper down than his conduct on the bench with his robe on and his zipper (presumably) up.
Seems Caldwell had a penchant for dirty texting and crude Georgia game tailgating behavior. And there was so much more. So, it appears that someone from the Star Chamber payed him a visit and he scrawled out a letter to the governor resigning his position.
If you think that was bad, you should have seen him in court. He was rude to defense attorneys, had a tendency to swivel his chair around and let you know he wasn’t listening when you spoke, didn’t rule on objections (other than to say “okay” or “I note your objection”). He once told me “if you want to argue, I guess I can’t stop you.”). His court was not a place you looked forward to going because you weren’t going to be treated professionally, particulalry if you weren’t the State. He would yell at attorneys appearing before him. He’d make it a point to embarrass you if he could.
Had I complained to JQC, they would have thrown the Complaint in the trash. It’s what happens off the bench that counts.
Enter The Star Chamber
JQC Chair, Benjamin Easterlin said that “I would not necessarily reach the conclusion that we have a bunch of bad judges out there based on the recent flurry,” and neither is it “a matter of us ratcheting up any investigative efforts.”
But I bet the numbers have always been high. We also have a governor in office who’s not a big fan of the judiciary who has gotten the opportunity to appoint a bunch of judges. Those things, I am sure Mr. Easterlin would explain, are coincidental.
Of course, we’re never really going to know what’s going on with JQC. Since 2008, only six judges have ever been publicly charged. It’s long-standing practice is to squeeze the judge to get a resignation, or in Easterlin’s parlance, to “give the judge an opportunity to resign.”
When asked about whether the public had the right to be informed about the Commission’s actions, Mr. Easterlin said that such things are just gossipy: “I’m not sure what the public benefits from knowing that somebody did something bad.”
They are serious about the smoke-filled room thing. If you complain to the JQC and tell anybody about your complaint, you can be held in contempt for talking about it. Gerald Weber, former director of the ACLU in Georgia, sued the JQC on behalf of a jury foreman who had complained about a judge who fell asleep during a trial. The JQC fought that suit vigorously.
The other problem with squeezing judgees into retirement like that is that it presumes that the JQC is right and deprives the public of knowledge of misdonduct and parties who might have been harmed of their right to know.
I hate it, even if it got some people who deserved it.