Last year, voters approved an amendment to the Constitution of the great state of Georgia to gut the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the body that oversees ethics complaints against judges. The legislature is trying to figure out just what that new commission will look like, while problems have plagued the process of reconstituting the JQC.
It came out last year that one of the key backers of the measure to destroy judicial accountability, Rep. Johnny Caldwell, was a former judge who got in trouble with the commission for making lewd remarks to a female attorney. This forced him to ultimately resign his judgeship.
A last-minute group also formed to try to defeat the measure, because it will eliminate the independence of the commission and has questionable origins, but the Constitutional Amendment ultimately passed.
Rep. Wendall Willard has introduced a introduced a bill to work out the new structure and oversight of the JQC. In its current form, it gives the Supreme Court a lot of oversight into the rules and decisions the JQC makes. Keep in mind, the state Supreme Court has just been expanded from seven to nine members, and so Gov. Nathan Deal just appointed the two additional members, plus replaced someone who is retiring.
Willard’s legislation splits the duties of the commission into an investigative panel and a hearing panel. It also creates a fair number of circumstances where the proceedings of the JQC are kept confidential and will not be disclosed to the public.
The State Bar has been stripped of its official influence in the process, which is no surprise. The governor, lt. governor, speaker of the House and the Supreme Court are now the only folks who get to pick the members.
While last year the legislature indicated they would consider people recommended by the State Bar, earlier this month Speaker David Ralston rejected all their candidates.
According to the Daily Report, which has been closely tracking this issue:
Ralston called the list a “very narrow pool of recommendations” that he said did not reflect “reforms” that the abolition of the JQC as an independent agency in favor of one governed by the legislature were intended to achieve.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle appointed one person from the State Bar’s list, as well as former commissioner Brian Tam. It should be noted that Tam’s behavior while commissioner raised more than a few eyebrows, and his fellow commissioners voted to strip him of his chairmanship back in 2012. Commissioners described Tam’s behavior as “bullying” and “heavy-handed,” according to the local Patch.
Tam just announced he will not accept the role.
When the JQC measures passed last year, an error in how the legislation was written created two different timelines for the end of the current commission and the start of the new one.
As the Daily Report uncovered:
Under the amendment passed by voters [in November], the current JQC ceases to exist on June 30, 2017. But its replacement, created by underlying legislation passed in the General Assembly, is supposed to start six months earlier, on Jan. 1.
To deal with this, an interim body has been put in place starting January 1, and lawmakers expect to pass legislation on the new JQC this session, so that a new body can start operating July 1, 2017.
All of this is subject to change. As the bill moves through the legislative process, amendments and substitutions are very likely. In fact, a hearing this week is likely to result in changes. But the judicial ethics process is an important one, so hopefully there will be robust debate and plenty of citizen input.