ATLANTA -- Georgia voters will decide in November whether to remake a commission that most of them have probably never heard of. Yet critics says the constitutional amendment could de-fang the agency that holds courtroom judges accountable.
The eleven-syllable agency is the Judicial Qualifications Commission. More than 60 judges have left the bench after JQC investigations. And some lawmakers think the agency has too much power.
Courtrooms tend to be very formal, buttoned down places. But occasionally, things get weird. And judges can be at the center of it.
"How about this? I’ll kill your whole family. I’ll murder your whole family. I’ll cut them up into pieces," said Denver Fenton Allen to a judge in a hearing in Floyd County earlier this year. Allen is accused of a jailhouse murder.
YouTube has animated video based on the transcript, voiced by a creator of the Adult Swim show "Rick and Morty."
The defendant baited the judge – and the transcript shows that Superior Court Judge Bryant Durham Jr. took the bait, calling him "stupid." The judge also told him he had a "constitutional right to be a dumb ass" and urged the defendant to masturbate in the courtroom.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission investigated and admonished Judge Durham.
"What we’ve seen is judges using the N-word during trial, or illegally charge people fees that they pocketed themselves. Or sexually harass people or lawyers who come before them in court," said Sara Totonchi, an opponent of the amendment to change the commission. She says the Judicial Qualifications Commission has been an effective watchdog against the excess of judges.
"Judges are not the easiest people to hold accountable. Yet the JQC has done an exceptional job over the last forty years doing just that," Totonchi said.
But Amendment three on this year’s ballot would remake the judicial qualifications commission to suit members of the Georgia legislature.
Currently, the seven members of the JQC are appointed by the State Bar of Georgia, the governor and the Georgia Supreme Court.
Under amendment three, the legislature would control the appointments. The legislature would also have the power to keep secret the records of its proceedings.
"There is a certain amount of need for the JQC to operate independently, said Rep. Wendell Willard, sponsor of the bill to create the amendment. Nonetheless, he says "you needed to make some changes. So we felt there needed to be a constitutional amendment change to have this autonomous body answerable to somebody."
If the amendment passes, critics say judges in the JQC’s crosshairs would be able to get their friends in the legislature to undercut investigations into judges.
"I think you can’t get any closer to the fox guarding the henhouse than this," Totonchi said.
Willard disagrees. He contends that allowing lawmakers to appoint JQC members won't impact the agency's ability to keep judges on their toes -- and run off the judges that break the rules.