- Associated Press - Sunday, June 7, 2015

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - Amanda F. Williams was one of coastal Georgia’s most powerful judges when she resigned to settle noncriminal misconduct charges that she had jailed drug users for indefinite periods, heard cases in which her family served as attorneys, berated lawyers and otherwise acted with “tyrannical partiality.”

That was 3 ½ years ago. Since then, Williams resumed practicing law in the port city of Brunswick. Both her critics and supporters assumed she had closed her case by leaving the bench in January 2012 with a promise to never again seek judicial office.

That changed last week when a grand jury in Fulton County, 300 miles from the courthouse where Williams presided as a Superior Court judge, indicted her on criminal charges. Williams, now 68, faces prison and possible disbarment if convicted of lying to the state agency that investigated her for misconduct back in 2011.

“I had sort of figured, along with a lot of other people, that it was just going to go away,” said Doug Alexander, a Brunswick attorney who wrote a letter during Williams’ 2010 re-election campaign that questioned the judge’s ethics, ultimately leading to the misconduct investigation. “Why did it take so long is the big question.”

Williams spent 20 years on the bench and rose to chief judge of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit. She also oversaw Georgia’s largest drug court, designed to let some drug offenders avoid prison if they become clean.

Williams gained a reputation for being exceptionally tough on attorneys and defendants. Some argued she was harsher than Georgia’s standards for judges allowed. Noncriminal charges brought in 2011 accused Williams of screaming at a juvenile probationer in her courtroom, cursing at attorneys and jailing a drug court defendant for using the term “baby momma.”

Jim Stein, a Camden County defense attorney who has worked closely with Williams, said her demeanor was honed dealing with attorneys who failed to give Williams the same respect they would show to male judges.

“She was a tough taskmaster for those who came before her in the court, but it was always for their benefit,” Stein said. “The fact she held us to such a high standard made me a better lawyer.”

But Williams wasn’t just accused of having a temper. The Judicial Qualifications Commission charged her with presiding over cases in which her husband and daughter were involved as attorneys. She was also accused of jailing drug court defendants indefinitely while denying them contact with lawyers. In 2008, a drug defendant named Lindsey Dills spent 73 days in solitary confinement and tried to kill herself in jail.

In May 2011, Williams’ critics gained national attention when several of the judge’s drug defendants were featured on the public radio show “This American Life.”

Williams appeared before the commission Aug. 5, 2011, and prosecutors say she denied giving jailers direction regarding Dills’ confinement. But the commission says records show the judge ordered Dill held with “no mail, no phone calls, no visitors.”

Days after Williams left office in 2012, Attorney General Sam Olens appointed Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard to decide whether to pursue criminal charges. Jackie Johnson, the district attorney in Williams’ judicial circuit, had recused herself.

Lester Tate, chairman of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, said as the years passed he assumed prosecutors lost interest in Williams. Then Howard’s office contacted the commission a few weeks ago while preparing its case for the grand jury.

“It’s one thing when you have to go and investigate the case,” Tate said. “But the investigation they used was basically ours.”

Prosecutors couldn’t have waiting much longer. The four-year legal window for prosecuting Williams would have expired Aug. 5.

Charges against Williams of making false statements to a state agency and violating her oath of office are each punishable by one to five years in prison. If she is convicted of a felony, the State Bar of Georgia could move to have Williams disbarred.

Williams did not return a phone message left at her law office. John Ossick, her attorney in the earlier misconduct case, also did not return phone calls.

“There’s no excuse for that sort of delay,” Stein said. “That in itself is more than enough punishment, laying your head down on your pillow every night wondering if you’re going to be indicted.”

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