Changes in the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission:  Top judicial ethics and discipline stories of 2016

In November 2016, Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment that abolished the extant Judicial Qualifications Commission in favor of a commission with a composition, manner of appointment, and governance to be determined in future legislation by the General Assembly.  As widely reported, the bill to put the measure on the ballot was co-sponsored by a legislator who had been a judge until he resigned while under investigation by the Commission after a female attorney in a divorce case alleged in a motion to disqualify that he had sexually harassed her; the comments, recounted in a hearing on the motion, were too graphic to be repeated on air or in an on-line article, according to a TV station.  Legislators defended the measure, however, by pointing to complaints of unfair treatment by two of the hundreds of judges who have had complaints filed against them with the Commission.

Prior to the amendment, there were 7 members on the Commission:  2 judges appointed by the Georgia Supreme Court, 3 attorneys appointed by the State Bar, and 2 public members appointed by the Governor.  Under the implementing legislation, the Bar’s appointment authority was eliminated.  (According to news reports, the Speaker of the House has had a bar complaint pending against him for years and threatened to pursue legislation to eliminate mandatory Bar membership if the Bar campaigned against the constitutional amendment, which it decided not to do.)  On the newly constituted commission, there would be 3 attorney members, 1 each appointed by the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate from lists of nominees by the Bar, and 1 appointed by the Governor to serve as chair.  The Supreme Court would appoint 2 judge members.  The Speaker and the President would appoint 1 citizen member.

That legislation also drastically increased the secrecy of the Commission, making proceedings confidential through the formal charges, hearing, and recommendation stages and informing the public only if the Georgia Supreme Court decided to issue a public reprimand or censure or to suspend, retire, or remove the judge.  Prior to the amendment, the Commission’s proceedings became public at the filing of formal charges, which is also the rule in 26 states with an additional 6 states opening up after the judge files an answer to the charges and an additional 2 making the hearing public.  The level of confidentiality adopted for the new Georgia commission seems inconsistent with the legislators’ claims that more accountability was the goal of the amendment; the less public a commission’s actions, the less likely any unfair treatment of judges or by judges will be disclosed.

However, in late January, new legislation was introduced called “The Judicial Qualifications Commission Improvement Act of 2017.”  Among the changes if it is enacted would be a reversion to the former confidentiality rule, with all pleadings and information in disciplinary matters subject to disclosure to the public and all hearings and proceedings open and available to the public after the filing and service of formal charges.

The new bill also proposes a 10-member commission, divided into a 7-member investigative panel and a 3-member hearing panel.  The 7 members of the investigative panel would be appointed by the Georgia Supreme Court (2 judges), the Speaker of the House (1 attorney and 1 citizen), the President of the Senate (1 attorney and 1 citizen), and the Governor (1 attorney who would be chair).  The hearing panel would consist of 1 citizen member appointed by the Governor and 1 attorney member and 1 citizen member appointed by the Court.  The investigative panel would be responsible for the commission’s investigative, prosecutorial, and administrative functions; the hearing panel would adjudicate formal charges filed by the investigative panel and make recommendations to the Supreme Court as to disciplinary and incapacity orders.

For more information on the composition and confidentiality of the state judicial conduct commissions, see the tables in the most requested Center resources section of the Center’s web-site.

Other posts on the top judicial ethics and discipline stories of 2016

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