Judge lobbied legislator who was defendant in his court
An interesting sidebar to last week’s legal malpractice trial of state Rep. Randal Mangham:
The judge who gave Mangham a new trial in 2008 had to drop the case because he’d been lobbying the legislator to fund a program in his court.
A DeKalb County State Court jury on May 6 awarded $625,000 in damages to a former client of Mangham’s who claimed he bungled her personal injury lawsuit.
In a 2005 trial of the same case, Mangham was ordered to pay $293,000 in damages. But State Court Judge Johnny Panos, ruling one of Mangham’s witnesses should have been allowed to testify as an expert, granted him a new trial in March 2008.
A week later, Mangham said, Panos called him to push for state funding for Project Achieve, a program that encourages high school dropouts appearing in his court to get their GED.
Several days after that, Panos recused himself from the case on a motion from Mangham.
In an interview this week, Panos said he called all the DeKalb County legislators during the 2007 session, not just Mangham, to drum up support for Project Achieve.
“That’s what I understood you gotta do” to get legislation passed, he said.
Campaign records show the judge also made $5,450 in campaign contributions to DeKalb legislators from 2006 to 2008.
Once Mangham raised the issue of a possible conflict in court last year, Panos said he decided “I probably had too much of a financial interest … and it probably would be wise to leave the case.”
House Bill 1316 would have imposed a $3 fee in DeKalb State Court civil cases to raise nearly $200,000 a year for Project Achieve. A three-member panel – Panos and two other court officials – would have overseen the fund.
DeKalb’s six other State Court judges objected to Panos’ characterizations of the program and urged legislators to table the bill.
In a March 2008 letter, the judges said they’d seen no proof that Panos’ program was more effective than other GED programs. They also objected to imposing another fee on defendants who are in court because they can’t pay their debts.
Panos said he may try again for state funding for Project Achieve. Until then, it’s still a pilot project running on $50,000 a year to pay teachers who conduct evening classes.
The program has enrolled about 100 people, of which 70 to 75 percent have gone on to get their GEDs, Panos said. Many participants who complete their classwork are eligible to have the criminal charges dismissed and arrests expunged.
Mainstream GED prep classes, he said, won’t work for the misdemeanor defendants who appear before him.
“They’re not necessarily bad people. They just don’t know how to deal with life,” he said. “My program is different because it provides more structure and vigilance as to what the students are doing.”