ON THE BALLOT
The proposed amendment to reform the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), #3 on the Nov. 8 ballot, is perhaps the second most controversial proposed change to the Georgia Constitution.
The question that appears on the ballot does not reflect the reason for the opposition from many attorneys and human rights organizations. Southern Center for Human Rights, Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, ACLU of Georgia, Common Cause of Georgia and others have all taken a stand against amendment #3.
Created in 1972 as a watchdog group over judges, the JQC serves as an independent agency. Its seven members currently consists of two judges appointed by Georgia’s Supreme Court; three active members of the State Bar serving with at least 10 years experience who are elected by the State Bar’s board of governors; and two citizens, neither of whom are members of the State Bar, appointed by the Governor. All appointments must be confirmed by the Senate.
Under the proposed amendment, which originated in the House, that would change. JQC members would be appointed by the legislature.
Under the proposed amendment, the Supreme Court would still appoint two members of the JQC. Three attorneys with a minimum of 10 years experience would be nominated by the State Bar and appointed by the Governor, Lt. Governor and Speaker of the House; and two citizens, one appointed by the President of the Senate and one by the Speaker of the House would make up the remainder of the commission.
The legislature could also, at any time, change the selection method and terms of the commission’s members.
“Part of the problem,” Tanner said concerning the reason for the proposed changes to the Constitution establishing the JQC, “is the concern that elected officials [judges] can be removed by the JQC, and it’s not an open process. We want to increase transparency, and make sure due process is followed. That’s required in the amendment.”
Sen. Steve Gooch said he believes the new method of appointment would provide “a better checks and balance system. Basically, now it is all the judiciary making the appointments. There’s not enough transparency in the mix. They are basically managing their own industry.”
He also pointed out that as is now stands, the voting public has no recourse if they don’t agree with a JQC decision. “If the amendment passes, if a constituent is not happy with what’s going on, they can contact their representative,” he said.
Opponents of the amendment say politicians have no place in making appointments to the JQC.
“Judicial discipline shouldn’t be a political matter,” said Sara Totonchi, Executive Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights and spokesperson for Georgians for Judicial Integrity, a grassroots group of concerned citizens and nonpartisan organizations. “The language of Amendment 3 is vague and intentionally misleading to Georgia voters, making it sound like doing away with the JQC’s independence will increase fairness when in fact the opposite is true. Putting JQC appointments in legislators’ hands threatens the commission’s mandate to treat judges without bias or favoritism; it introduces politics in a sphere where politics shouldn’t govern.”
Local attorneys agree.
“I’m strongly against the amendment. There are three separate and distinct branches of government, and for legislators to try to take over the running of our judicial branch is wrong. That’s not how our government is set up,” said Jeff Wolff. Wolff is a criminal defense attorney with 21 years of experience.
“The JQC is a good organization. While not perfect, it has done a good job of making judges accountable. The system now in place works,” he said.
Steven Leibel, a civil trial lawyer with 36 years experience and a former member of the Board of Governors of the State Bar, said he is voting no on the amendment.
“The amendment would eliminate an effective watchdog agency,” he said. “In my opinion, it would be a political free for all if this body does not remain independent. It’s unfortunate there is even an attempt to eliminate an independent body to oversee the conduct of judges.”
Over the past 10 years the JQC has forced more than five dozen judges from the bench, Totonchi said, including Enotah Circuit judges Lynn Alderman and David Barrett.
“In fact, a sponsor of the bill to dismantle the JQC, former Griffin Circuit Superior Court Judge Johnnie Caldwell, Jr., stepped down after a JQC investigation revealed that he made rude, sexually suggestive comments to a female attorney. He also agreed not to seek judicial office again. Two years later, former judge Caldwell ran and was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives,” she said.
Corruption, illegal behavior, nepotism, racism and abuse of power have all been subjects of JQC investigations over the past 10 years. A full list of JQC cases resulting in removal of judges is available at www.georgiajudges.org.
Tanner said another reason for the amendment was the commission’s use of a “strong-arm process. They say, if you don’t resign, this is what is going to happen.”
The amendment does call for due process of law to be provided. However, those investigated by the JQC do have the right to a public trial. When offered they generally decline the choice and resign instead, however.
Another of the proposed amendment’s aims is to increase transparency. However, it is vague when it comes to how that is to be accomplished.
Currently, all investigations and rulings of the JQC are confidential. But the proposed amendment simply reads the JQC will be “open to the public in some manner in conducting its business ...” It is the General Assembly that would determine which records would be made public.
The amendment appears as #3 on the Nov. 8 ballot.
“At the end of the day, it’s up to voters to make an informed decision. It’s not my place to tell individuals how they should vote. I encourage voters to research and read the amendment for themselves,” Tanner said.
All amendments are available online, and at the local Elections Office and the office of the Probate Judge.