- Associated Press - Saturday, October 15, 2016

ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia voters will decide in November whether the independent state agency that investigates allegations of wrongdoing by judges should be overhauled and essentially placed under control of the Legislature.

The question about the Judicial Qualifications Commission is one of four proposed statewide constitutional amendments on the general election ballot. The commission was created by constitutional amendment in 1972. It is responsible for investigating complaints of ethical misconduct by judges and for disciplining them. It also has authority to issue advisory opinions on appropriate judicial conduct.

Commission actions have led to the removal of more than five dozen judges over the last decade. Commission member and former investigator Richard Hyde said he’s seen cases involving judges who have sexually assaulted women, used drugs, written racist notes during trial, belittled a domestic violence victim and pointed a gun at people in the courtroom.

Many of the details never become public because the judges often choose to resign or retire once confronted with the allegations rather than having the issue handled publicly, Hyde said.

The measure proposes abolishing the existing commission and allowing the Legislature to create a new commission.

Its supporters have raised concerns some judges’ due process rights have been violated, saying the commission needs more oversight. Critics called the proposal a power grab and a politically motivated attack on a constitutionally created watchdog agency whose independence is crucial.

The average citizen likely hasn’t even heard of the commission, but critics and supporters of the proposed amendment agree it is an important avenue of recourse for those who feel a judge has behaved unethically.

State Rep. Wendell Willard, a Sandy Springs Republican and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, shepherded the proposed amendment and accompanying legislation through the Legislature after hearing of several cases in which he believes the commission abused its power and mistreated judges. He also heads a study committee formed to investigate the commission and recommend changes.

Willard said he’s concerned that the same people receive complaints, investigate them, determine whether there was wrongdoing and then decide on punishment in cases of alleged judicial misconduct, a concern that has been echoed by at least two current commission members.

“This raises issues of fairness, impartiality and due process,” Willard said during a study committee meeting.

Critics say the measure was passed hurriedly without adequate consideration of solutions for the commission’s shortcomings. They also worry that well-connected judges could lean on legislators and jeopardize the agency’s effectiveness.

“I find this to be a dangerous overreach that may place judges in jeopardy based on the temperament of the political appointees to the JQC,” House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, an Atlanta Democrat and opponent of the amendment, said in an emailed statement.

Currently the commission includes two judges selected by the Georgia Supreme Court; three lawyers appointed by the State Bar of Georgia; and two people who don’t belong to the State Bar and who are appointed by the governor. The commissioners choose their own chair.

Under accompanying legislation set to take effect in January if the amendment passes, there would still be seven members, but the State Bar would lose its direct appointment power.

Instead, the state Supreme Court would pick two judges, the governor would choose one lawyer who would be chair, and the speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor would each choose one lawyer and one non-lawyer. All appointments would also need state Senate approval.

But none of that is set in stone. The Legislature would have the authority to make changes and Willard has said that’s likely. He said he’s awaiting recommendations from a group headed by state Supreme Court Justice David Nahmias that is working on rewriting the commission’s rules for the first time since its creation more than 40 years ago. Among other things, it’s looking at recommendations for the commission’s structure, including expanding the number of commissioners and creating separate investigative and hearing panels.

The proposed amendment also says it would “allow the Judicial Qualifications Commission to be open to the public in some manner.”

But under the accompanying legislation, commission investigations, disciplinary hearings and recommendations to the state Supreme Court would be confidential. Warning letters to judges would remain confidential. Recommendations for public reprimand, censure, suspension, retirement or removal would have to be voted on by the commission and approved by a majority of the members of the Supreme Court; but if a public action is taken, accompanying documents would no longer be confidential. Findings and records from open commission meetings would be considered public records.

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