Disgraced former Ga. judge behind push to abolish judicial watchdog group

Disgraced judge behind push to abolish watchdog group

A former state judge who stepped down after allegations of misconduct is trying to get rid of the the watchdog agency that went after him.

The ballot in the November election will include a proposed constitutional amendment to get rid of an independent watchdog agency: the judicial qualifications commission that polices the state’s judges.

If voters approve the November referendum, the independent agency will be removed from the constitution and replaced with one that answers to the state legislature.

That judicial watchdog agency has forced dozens of Georgia judges to resign, including a man who is now a powerful state representative.

But the only public evidence showing the former Griffin judge sexually harassed a female attorney in his courtroom disappeared - until 11Alive chief investigator Brendan Keefe hunted it down.

The document contains words so damning it took down two judges.

“He leaned in to give me a hug and crammed his tongue in my mouth,” the victim said in the record.

He would “tell me to wear my pants a little tighter in court” the document stated.

“He” was Johnnie Caldwell, the former district attorney elevated to Superior Court judge in the Griffin judicial circuit.

The woman testifying was a female lawyer in the judge’s courtroom.

“If I wanted an order signed in my favor…I needed to come to his office…and take down my pants and at least let him look at it if I wasn’t going to let him touch it.”

Some of the sexual comments in this transcript are so graphic they can’t be repeated on television or in this article. These were the allegations that ended Caldwell’s career as a judge - but not his political power.

The testimony remains the only public record of what happened behind closed doors in the judge’s chambers.

11Alive went inside the Fayette County Court House and immediately found the electronic entry “Transcript of 6/25/10”

But the paper court records told a different story.

There was a folder labeled “Transcript 6/25/10” but inside was only an addendum listing the courtroom exhibits from that day.

The testimony detailing graphic sexual allegations against Judge Caldwell was missing.

We can only conclude that pages 1 through 236 are missing from the court record. The docket has been altered.

There was no reply from the court reporter until the next day when, without explanation, she wrote, “the transcript has been located you may now obtain a copy for yourself.”

Not one but two certified copies of the previously missing transcript suddenly appeared in a drawer that had been empty during our earlier visits.

The wrong case number was typed on the front and it had been misfiled with a totally unrelated case.

Inside those lost pages were the “sexually charged” allegations that brought judicial ethics investigators to the courthouse 6 years earlier.

Judge Caldwell abruptly stepped down, writing in his resignation letter to the governor that he wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren. He also promised the Judicial Qualifications Commission investigator that he would never run for judge again.

He didn’t. Instead he ran for a higher office – from the courthouse to the state house. Now Representative Johnnie Caldwell is trying to dismantle the Judicial Qualifications Commission itself  by going after the same watchdog agency that went after him.

“You’re stripping an independent, constitutionally-mandated watchdog agency out of the constitution and putting it to the complete whim of the politicians,” former Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) chair Lester Tate said.

Tate resigned after Caldwell and five other representatives co-sponsored legislation to abolish the JQC.

“It was introduced by at least one judge who resigned while being investigated,” Tate said.

Rep. Caldwell walked out of his own judiciary committee minutes before a hearing on bills he co-sponsored,  where lawmakers talked about judges like him who were forced to resign.

In the House chamber, while a candidate for judge recused himself; former Judge Caldwell did not.

He voted “yea” -- asking voters to amend the Georgia state constitution to create a new commission answering to state lawmakers like him.

“It’s a political dumpster fire,” Tate said. “And the only way that dumpster fire gets put out is if the people of the state of Georgia realize what’s going on, go to the ballot box, and vote no.”

Rep. Caldwell responded to 11Alive’s investigation of the sexual harassment case writing “I accepted responsibility for making a mistake. Since then I have tried to move forward with my life and make my family and friends proud of me.”

The former judge said he knew nothing about the missing file in his statement, provided below.

 

© 2017 WXIA-TV


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