Two years ago, the Georgia First Amendment Foundation honored the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission for an opinion that strongly discouraged judges from keeping the public out of courtrooms.
The foundation’s board believes the JQC’s opinion immediately improved public access to courts in Georgia.
The JQC was created by a constitutional amendment voters approved in 1972. It operates largely independently, with members appointed by the governor, the state Supreme Court and the Georgia Bar Association.
But some legislators are unhappy with the JQC. So on the ballot this fall, voters are being asked to abolish the commission as currently constituted and give state legislators authority to decide how commissioners should be chosen and how the commission should operate.
The Georgia First Amendment Foundation believes this new amendment could result in less transparency about Georgia’s courts and judicial conduct.
The language on the ballot is itself opaque. It says new rules will "allow the Judicial Qualifications Commission to be open to the public in some manner."
But that manner is not defined and far from certain.
In the last session, the Senate version of proposed enabling legislation tightened confidentiality around commission investigations of alleged misconduct by judges and sought to further restrict public access to its hearings.
In recent years, the trend at the General Assembly has been toward more government secrecy, not less. In the last session, the Legislature passed a bill allowing any state agency to conceal documents involving possible business expansions of $25 million in investment or 50 jobs until after a deal is signed.
The bill presumes that if, say, the construction of a private prison near your home could create 50 jobs, you are only entitled to learn about it after the fact.
The same General Assembly also decided college athletic departments should be given 90 days, rather the usual three, to respond to public records requests.
Such actions do not suggest a predisposition to embrace the transparency philosophy of the JQC in supporting open courts.
Without question, the open court opinion ruffled feathers; the Council of State Court Judges has argued before the Georgia Supreme Court in a still-pending case that the opinion should be revised.
The JQC also has been aggressive about judicial oversight.
The JQC has removed or disciplined judges for, among other things, telling a female defendant that favorable rulings would be granted in exchange for sex; pulling a handgun in open court and suggesting a witness could use it to kill her lawyer; and setting up personal accounts funded by the unauthorized collection of court fees.
Strong enforcement has fueled opposition. One former judge, who resigned amid a commission investigation regarding sexually inappropriate remarks to a female attorney, later ran for the legislature.
He is now a sponsor of the bill seeking the commission’s abolishment.
There is also no question the commission today faces significant internal challenges. Its former chair, Lester Tate, resigned after the 2016 legislative session, citing political interference, but also amid charges he abused his authority.
And in August, the North Georgia judge who took over, Brenda Weaver, resigned after she became embroiled in a controversy in which she supported the criminal indictment of a Fannin County newspaper publisher seeking public records concerning her court.
But until the recent turmoil, the commission operated effectively for more than 40 years under the umbrella of the state’s judicial branch without significant efforts to abolish it.
The Georgia First Amendment Foundation takes the position that to empower the legislature to reconstitute the JQC is far more likely to politicize the process of judicial oversight than to advance the cause of an open and accountable government.