The courts’ watchdog agency awaits the state legislature’s rule changes, and moves ahead with hiring staff, including an investigator, absent since 2015, and pushes to increase the budget to hire a staff attorney which would be an agency first, according to the Daily Report.
By Julius Suber, SPJGA Board member
In November voters approved a constitutional amendment to abolish the old and beleaguered Judicial Qualifications Commission, which had been in place since 1972, and have it replaced with something “new” by June 30, 2017. The ballot was vague on the point. Voters only knew, if they approved the amendment, that the agency would no longer fall under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, but be moved and housed under the legislative branch of government, where “legislators would decide how the future JQC commissioners would be chosen” and how the agency would ultimately operate.
If you recall the Georgia First Amendment Foundation (GFAF) and others vehemently opposed passage of the constitutional amendment, because of the propensity for secrecy in the Georgia Legislature; reflected in a September 2016 blog post, titled Ballot Initiative to Abolish Judicial Watchdog Group A Bad Idea, by Hyde Post :
“In recent years, the strong trend at the General Assembly has been toward more government secrecy, not less. (The Legislature has always exempted itself from the Open Meetings Act and Open Records Act.)”
GFAF and the Society of Profession Journalists Georgia (SPJGA) believe the public has a right to know what’s going on in the Legislature and have access inside the courts.
What the final “new” JQC will look like is still anyone’s guess, but the Interim Commission isn’t absent of institutional knowledge…So, at least that’s one construct which appears to be important. According to a February 24, 2017 Daily Report article titled Retired King & Spalding Partner Takes Charge of Troubled Watchdog Agency, by R. Robin McDonald, five of six of the commissioners selected served on the old JQC, a seventh had yet to be named, by the House Speaker, and even the newly hired executive director Benjamin Easterlin served as a commissioner from 2002-2010.
Reportedly Easterlin wants a 50 percent increase in the agency’s budget over the “former $535,000.”
“…Since his [Easterlin’s] hire, he has monitored legislation that would expand the JQC and divide it into two panels—one that would investigate judges and a second that would preside over hearings at which ethics charges against judges were adjudicated.”
Easterlin should know that organizations like GFAF and SPJGA are also watching the process and hope for the best outcome, and will side with the public and call for action if limited access, input and unfairness become the rule.
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Mr. Suber’s article serves to update concerned citizens as to the ongoing reconstitution of the JQC, and I appreciate his effort.
I live in Fannin County, the scene of Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver’s outrageous false arrests on trumped-up charges of publisher Mark Thomason and his attorney, Russell Stookey, when they tried to use Open Records requests to access copies of checks that were drawn on the Appalachian Superior Court’s operating budget account.
The links to related articles at the bottom of Mr. Suber’s report provide eloquent reminders of the SPJ/GA’s ongoing, adamant support of Thomason and the use of Open Records, and its powerful denunciation of the vindictive misuse of position and authority by Judge Weaver and others under her sway.
Is it true that Mr. Easterlin’s law firm employs a relative of Judge Weaver? The report I have heard is that Mr. Easterlin had to recuse himself from an investigation of a JQC complaint against Judge Weaver because of that connection. If true, that should be made clear in the report, inasmuch as Judge Weaver stepped down from her position as chair of the JQC subsequent to the complaint lodged against her. Also, may I ask if the SPJ/GA’s complaint to the JQC against Judge Weaver is still active.
Meanwhile, I understand Thomason and attorney Russell Stookey are proceeding with a civil rights suit that will address the mistreatment they received.