Embattled judge: Is he a Southern gentleman, or incompetent?
By JIM WALLS
Jan. 29, 2010 — A system that allows non-lawyers to dispense justice in much of rural Georgia has become a central issue in the possible removal of a middle Georgia probate judge.
The state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission wrapped up two days of testimony today on a petition to oust Twiggs County Probate Judge Kenneth Fowler, 61. Investigators say Fowler berated and belittled defendants in his court, misstated the law to benefit prosecutors, overreached his authority and oversaw an unauthorized fund of court fees that bought equipment and other items for local law enforcement agencies.
Fowler’s attorney acknowledged the judge made mistakes, but he placed much of the blame on a system that provides little or no training for judges who are not attorneys. Non-lawyers make up about 500 of the 1,800 men and women who sit on the bench in Georgia.
Fowler, elected in 2004 after several years as a part-time magistrate, received one week of classes in 2005 on probate matters. His court has also handled 5,000 traffic charges a year since he took office, but he received no training on traffic cases until 2007.
Legal training is problematic in smaller counties such as Twiggs, where only two of the 9,600 residents are lawyers.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission removed the two Twiggs probate judges who preceded Fowler, said his attorney, Jon Helton.
“Now this very group seeks to remove Judge Fowler and I guess my question would be: If you do, what are you going to get next?” Helton said. “Are you going to remove every citizen of Twiggs County until you get a lawyer?”
Helton said Fowler had discontinued courtroom practices that state investigators said were improper and had taken classes on his own initiative to learn more about the law and appropriate judicial conduct.
Fowler’s defense presented a series of witnesses — including District Attorney Craig Fraser, Chief Magistrate David Brown and county Commissioner Tommie Bryant — who said Fowler was the model of decorum in his courtroom.
Mike Cranford, a criminal defense attorney practicing in Macon, said Fowler was “the epitome of a Southern gentleman” and of proper judicial temperament.
But former Attorney General Mike Bowers, prosecuting the case for the JQC, said Fowler’s courtroom conduct showed more than just an unfamiliarity with the law.
Bowers referenced testimony Thursday by a Georgia Military College administrator who said Fowler had insinuated in open court that she had performed sexual favors for a sheriff’s deputy who had written her a speeding ticket.
“You don’t suggest to a woman wearing the uniform of the United States military that she may have batted her eyes or wiggled her behind to get out of a ticket,” he said. “There’s no training school for that kind of conduct.”
Thousands of Georgians every year have their first and perhaps only experience with the state judicial system in lower courts like Fowler’s.
“I don’t want ’em cussed, I don’t want ’em made fun of and I don’t want to have them told they acted improperly because a ticket was dismissed,” Bowers said.
At its core, he said, the case against Fowler is “about the tyranny of incompetence … We don’t have the luxury to be sympathetic for incompetence.”