Embattled mid-GA judge: ‘I was just as lost as I could be’
By JIM WALLS
Jan. 28, 2010 — A middle Georgia judge belittled and argued with defendants, misstated points of law and improperly ordered jailers not to give inmates time off their sentences for good behavior, witnesses told a judicial oversight panel in Atlanta today.
Probate Judge Kenneth Fowler also allowed defendants to avoid community service by paying into an unauthorized fund that benefited local law enforcement agencies. He said he had misgivings about the fund, which predated his taking office, but continued overseeing it because “I didn’t want to upset the apple cart.”
Fowler and several witnesses testified this morning in a packed courtroom before the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission, which is hearing evidence as it considers whether to remove him from office.
Jon Helton, Fowler’s attorney, described his client as a well-intentioned man who has worked much of his life as a farmer in Twiggs County, a rural community just southeast of Macon.
A former part-time magistrate with a high school education, Fowler was elected in 2004 to the Probate Court. He attended a five-day, 40-hour class after being elected, Helton said: “That’s the only training he ever had, that’s all that’s mandated by the state of Georgia.”
Fowler testified he was quite conscious of his lack of legal training. “When I first took office, I was just as lost as I could be,” the judge said.
“In the beginning I was so scared of making a mistake,” he said later. “I’m no lawyer.”
Georgia law does not require that probate judges be lawyers.
Fowler acknowledged rendering decisions based on ex parte discussions outside the courtroom with law enforcement officers, lawyers, witnesses and defendant’s relatives. He often had those conversations, he said, because prosecutors directed those outside parties to get in touch with him.
“Officers will call you and ask you to help this person out, not help this person out,” he said.
He said he was “trying to help somebody out” when he called tenants urging them to leave their apartments before they were evicted, even though his court has no jurisdiction over dispossessory matters.
Similarly, Fowler testified he had reduced alcohol-related charges to reckless conduct — another offense over which he has no jurisdiction — to keep the more serious charge off a defendant’s record. He said he did so on the suggestion of prosecutors.
Earlier this morning, an administrator at Georgia Military College testified that Fowler humiliated her in open court, suggesting she had performed sexual favors for the deputy who wrote her a ticket.
Leslie Lash said Fowler berated her and called her a criminal as she pleaded guilty to driving with a suspended license, Lash told the Georgia Judicial Qualifying Commission this morning.
Lash said Fowler read her driving record out loud in the courtroom and told her the deputy who stopped her should have taken her to jail.
“He said, ‘You must have really wiggled it,” she said. ” ‘You must have batted your eyelashes, you must have carried on, you must have really wiggled it,’ along those lines.”
Those remarks, Lash said, were met with “boisterous laughter behind me.”
The laughter died as Fowler continued on his “rant” and observers “realized how mortified I was,” she said.
Lash said Fowler never used the word “sex,” but she interpreted the judge’s statements as saying “that I had performed sexual favors for Deputy Hasty to keep from going to jail.”
Fowler’s remarks were sarcastic and hateful, she said: “At one point I had to focus on my breathing to keep from collapsing.”
Lash had been pulled over for speeding, but received a warning for that offense and was ticketed for driving on a suspended license. Lash said her license had been suspended when she inadvertently missed a court date for another ticket.
Fowler is facing possible removal from office for an alleged pattern of courtroom and financial misconduct. He’s been admonished once before, as a magistrate in 2002, when the Judicial Qualifications Commission referred him to a Supreme Court decision about a judge who had been found guilty of incompetence and a lack of official decorum.
“It is suggested that you review this opinion of the Supreme Court and that after your review you would take care that the actions which led to this complaint are not repeated in the future,” executive director Cheryl Fisher Custer wrote.
Formal charges in the current case describe a seven-year pattern of courtroom behavior that includes:
- Yelling and cursing at defendants,
- Referring to blacks in his courtroom as “colored,”
- Appearing to pre-judge defendants’ guilt,
- Convicting defendants without hearing testimony, and
- Dismissing criminal charges over which he had no jurisdiction.
“Individually, any of these charges deserves removal,” attorney Chris Anulewicz, who is prosecuting the case, told the commission. “Collectively, they demand it.”