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Middle Ga. judge faces suspension for alleged retaliation against witnesses
A middle Georgia judge retaliated against two witnesses who testified in January about his courtroom conduct, state investigators say. Those actions may cost Twiggs Probate Judge Kenneth Fowler his paycheck.
The state Judicial Qualifications Commission today will ask that Fowler be suspended from office immediately without pay. A hearing begins this morning in Macon before attorney H. Jerome Strickland, a special master appointed by the Georgia Supreme Court.
Fowler allegedly took action against two private probation officers as he waited to hear whether the high court would remove him from office permanently.
The JQC on March 31 called for his removal after hearing two days of testimony. A week later, Fowler asked the officers’ employer to remove the men from his courtroom. In an April 7 letter, he said John Napier and Barron Fuqua, who testified at the earlier JQC hearing,
“appeared as if they had some personal vendetta against me and it went further than just relaying what they had observed. Because of this, the level of trust necessary to effectively work together has been destroyed.”
In an emergency petitition filed last week, the JQC said the judge’s letter
“is clearly attempting to retaliate economically against Napier and Fuqua by requesting that their jobs be terminated — at least in Twiggs County. Judge Fowler’s action can also be easily seen as a threat against Napier and Fuqua should they testify against him in the future. Such testimony might be required should the court hold additional hearings.”
The JQC last month found that Fowler, a former farmer and convenience store operator with no legal training, frequently misstated the law in his courtroom. That included telling defendants that they, rather than the prosecution, had the burden of proving their case.
The judge also allowed defendants to avoid community service time by paying a fee into a fund that he controlled, the JQC found. He failed to turn those fees over to Twiggs County, using them instead to buy equipment and other items, sometimes for local law enforcement agencies, the agency concluded.
Napier and Fuqua were among the witnesses who described Fowler’s courtroom conduct to the JQC. The commission found that Fowler
“fail[ed] to be patient, dignified, and courteous to individuals appearing before him. Judge Fowler routinely used abusive and insulting language towards parties appearing in Probate Court. The commission finds that during trials Judge Fowler often loudly argued with defendants and witnesses.”
Fowler has denied all charges of abusive behavior but acknowledged making legal missteps in his courtroom. In January, he testified that he was self-conscious about his lack of legal training when he assumed the job in 2005.
“In the beginning I was so scared of making a mistake,” he testified. “I’m no lawyer.”