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Why the House might cut funding for judicial oversight
What may be Georgia ‘s busiest ethics agency is also its smallest. In July, it may get even smaller.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission, which looks into alleged misconduct by judges, already has just about the tiniest budget of any comparable agency in the country. For much of the last two years, it has made ends meet by simply not paying more than $120,000 owed to its investigator and private lawyers.
Now, the Georgia House proposes whacking the JQC’s budget by 36 percent to just $176,000. Alabama and Mississippi, with fewer than half as many judges, spent three to four times as much this year.
“This organization is effectively rendered impotent by those deep cuts,” said Chattahoochee Circuit Superior Court Judge John D. Allen, the commission’s vice chairman. “It would effectively deprive the public of the means of redressing any grievance they have regarding misconduct on the part of judges.”
No one questions that Georgia’s jurists need oversight. At least nine have resigned since 2008 amid allegations ranging from multiple DUIs to abuse of power to financial misconduct. Complaints are expected to hit a record-high 490 this year.
The House budget would leave the JQC with enough to pay its two employees but nothing else: not rent, not utility bills, not even fees to investigate and prosecute cases.
House leaders know all that. So what, you might ask, is really on their minds?
Speaker David Ralston and other lawmakers say they’re not happy that director Cheryl Fisher Custer works part time (three days a week) for what they regard as full-time pay ($82,500).
The AJC’s Carrie Teegardin reported in January that state personnel records show Custer is full-time. JQC officials said she was hired with the understanding she would work part-time, as was her predecessor.
That argument didn’t wash with House budget-writers.
“I think $80,000 a year should get you full-time work,” Ralston told Teegardin. “I think that’s what Georgians would expect.”
The speaker said Thursday he’ll try to restore at least some of the $100,000 budget cut, but he can’t say how much until this week. In return, he expects some assurance that the JQC will use the money wisely and efficiently.
“We appropriated the money to make sure people who have complaints about judges” are heard, he said. “We didn’t just appropriate money to just pay overhead.”
Lawmakers also believe the JQC offices should be in Atlanta, not 35 miles away in Covington, near Custer’s home, Ralston said.
The budget dispute, Ralston said, has nothing to do with the commission’s pursuit of charges against former Superior Court Judge Harry Doss of Blue Ridge — a longtime friend of his.
Prosecution of Doss’s case is one of several delayed, perhaps indefinitely, by the JQC’s funding problems. He is charged with abusive behavior toward litigants and lawyers; intervening in matters outside his jurisdiction; taking months and sometimes years to make rulings; and buying laptops for his wife and son with public funds.
Doss resigned in December but refused the JQC’s request that he never seek judicial office again.
Ralston contacted Troutman Sanders last year looking for a lawyer to represent Doss. The speaker said he sought a referral because he didn’t have the expertise to handle a JQC matter.
Norman Underwood, Doss’s attorney, said Ralston did not want to represent the judge for fear of alienating other judges in the Appalachian Circuit.
“He had a real concern about making the other judges mad. There are considerable tensions between Judge Doss and some of the other judges,” Underwood said.
Ralston tagged along with Underwood last spring to discuss the complaint with the JQC staff before formal charges were filed. But, Underwood said, “I made it very clear I was going to be counsel.”
That’s a good thing. The Georgia Supreme Court has held that legislators may not accept a fee to represent clients before state agencies.
Ralston said that ruling played no role in his involvement in the Doss matter. Given the court’s guideline for lawyer-legislators, he said, “it certainly wouldn’t be inappropriate for me to look at a case for somebody.”
Besides, Ralston said of the JQC case, “Judge Doss never paid me a penny.”