This post was intended to be a top 10 list. Then it was intended to be a top 5 list. But as I look back at 2011, there are really only two big stories that stand out. Actually, there are two stories and one lesson. The stories are the JQC’s investigation of Judge Amanda Williams and the Execution of Troy Davis. And the lesson? There is no more powerful court in Georgia than the trial court. It’s an important lesson to keep in mind if you are a client thinking of where the resources should go. And it’s an important lesson if you are entering a case as a lawyer and are contemplating the days and months ahead. In fact, the lesson I take from both as well as my years as a lawyer is that your chances of success are inversely proportional to deeply your case goes in to the system.
Judge Amanda Williams resigned in the face of an investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission. But her troubles began long before the JQC got involved. Judge Williams was the subject of an hourlong program about her drug court on NPR’s show, This American Life. According to that story, her drug court was the toughest in the nation, and punishment for those in the program included such things as indefinite sentences. That story aired on March 25, 2011. On November 10, 2011, the JQC brought 12 charges of misconduct (PDF). I’ve been appearing in front of trial judges throughout the State for some time. And, though I am not familiar with Judge Williams and know only what I have read in the media, the sort of thing that aired in the NPR story is within the realm of arbitrary use of judicial power I have seen in other courtrooms. Most JQC complaints go nowhere, and the appellate process protects the discretion of the trial judge in most instance unless that discretion is abused. It is difficult to imagine more raw power by an official than that of a judge in the judge’s courtroom.
The story that emerged on December 15, 2011, may have been what proved to be the judge’s undoing. It was reported that drug court was used as much as a carrot as it was a stick. In the case of the relative of a prominent and power Sea Island business man, according to the story, drug court was the place for an accused child abuser to go to escape a harsher sanction. Shortly after this story surfaced, the judge resigned. It even made the New York Times.
The JQC’s action in this case does not underscore the point that judges can’t get away with stuff. Rather, it underscores just how far things have to go in Georgia before a judge is actually sanctioned. It is also interesting to note that none of the folks who were treated arbitrarily had controversies that made their way into the appellate courts.
If there is one lesson to be learned from the Amanda Williams story it is that the trial court is a powerful setting.
The appellate setting is a different thing altogether. If witnesses start recanting, if prominent people start complaining that a convicted man is innocent, even if Big Boy shows up to protest, there is little that an appellate court can do or will do to undo a conviction and even a death sentence. The Department of Corrections ultimate executed Mr. Davis for a murder of a Savannah police officer in the 1990s. In the weeks leading up to that execution, there was much debate about how strong the evidence was against Mr. Davis at that original trial. It was a shame that all the effort that went into analyzing the evidence over a decade after the trial did not go into the trial itself. And others found out that hours before an execution was too late to try to get the death penalty abolished in Georgia. If such effort were sustained over a period of time while the General Assembly was in session, who knows what might happen.
These two stories demonstrate that the real power to shape a case’s outcome lies at the juries and judges who hear the trials and who handle justice at the evidentiary level. There is a real law of diminishing returns the deeper a case goes into the process. Even if a case ends up on appeal or before a habeas court, a lawyer’s ability to win can be significantly impaired by what happened before the trial court. That is the lesson I took from the two two stories of the year. The power of the courts to intervene diminishes the deeper you get into the system. And a judge has to go pretty far to be sanctioned for abusing it.