Beyond defense of reputation

Another judge has been sanctioned for an inappropriate reaction to public criticism.  For a discussion of 2 other recent cases on the topic, seeThin Skin.”

Based on the report and recommendation of the hearing panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, to which the judge had not filed objections, the Georgia Supreme Court publicly reprimanded a judge for berating a bail bondsman who had criticized the judge on Facebook.  Inquiry Concerning Norris (Georgia Supreme Court June 22, 2022). 

On July 5, 2019, the Athens Banner-Herald published an article about a defendant who had failed to appear in court for the retrial of rape charges after the judge had released him on his own recognizance following a mistrial.  

Nathan Owens, a bail bondsman who works in counties in the judge’s circuit, reposted the story to his personal Facebook page and to a large Facebook group called “Overheard at UGA.”  Owens added his thoughts about the judge’s handling of the case, expressing his opinion that the defendant should not have been released on his own recognizance.  “Owens’s post gained a lot of attention,” and the judge asked another bondsman, John Elliott, about contacting Owens.  On July 9, at Elliott’s suggestion, Owens texted the judge, and the judge told Owens to meet him in his office at 9:00 the following morning.

On the morning of July 10, Owens went to the courthouse with Elliott and another bondsman, Scott Hall.  When they arrived at the judge’s chambers, an armed deputy took their cell phones.  The judge then arrived, visibly upset, and instructed Elliott and Hall to remain in the lobby while Owens went into his office.  A deputy stood in the only apparent doorway.

“With his lip quivering and hands shaking,” the judge instructed Owens to “sit down and listen to what I have to say.”  In a raised voice, he began reading from the statutory bondsman code of conduct, which he had printed out for the meeting.  “Becoming nervous,” Owens requested that his lawyer be present, but the judge ignored his request.  He allowed Elliott and Hall to come into his office, and Owens asked them to witness that he wanted to leave or have his attorney present.

For 30 minutes, the judge chastised, berated, and lectured Owens, implying that Owens did not have “good moral character,” insinuating that he had the power to affect Owens’s livelihood as a bondsman, and reprimanding Owens for attacking him online and spreading “fake news.”  Owens, who felt that he was not free to leave, sat quietly and did not respond.  

Noting the panel’s statement that judges must bear public criticism “with grace (or at least stoicism),” the Court stated that “a judge’s defense of himself and his reputation against public criticism is not necessarily, on its own, a rule violation.  Elected judges are afforded First Amendment protections, at least with regard to their campaign activities.”  However, the Court concluded that the judge “went beyond simply defending his reputation, using his power and authority as a judicial officer to summon Owens to his chambers for a meeting, to threaten and intimidate Owens, and to discuss a pending case.”

The Court noted that the violations “were based on non-habitual conduct, with no evidence that he used vulgar language or engaged in any sort of physical altercation.”  However, it found that the judge “had not fully accepted responsibility,” noting he had “offered various justifications for his meeting with Owens” that the panel found “inconsistent and contradicted by other evidence.”  The Court explained:

Judge Norris’s deliberate and conscious planning of this confrontation is particularly problematic, as his misconduct was not the result of a sudden or brief loss of temper.  In fact, Owens’s Facebook post was posted a full five days before the meeting with Judge Norris, Judge Norris had to reach out to another bondsman to get in contact with Owens, Owens and Judge Norris exchanged multiple texts to arrange the meeting, Judge Norris set the meeting in his chambers, during business hours, Judge Norris printed out the statutory bondsman code of conduct, and then Judge Norris delivered an angry 30-minute monologue in a raised voice while Owens was required to sit and listen with an armed deputy standing in the doorway.  Judge Norris also denied Owens’s request to leave or have an attorney present and intimated that Judge Norris could harm Owens’s position as a bail bondsman.

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