Who should judge Georgia's judges?
On Tuesday, the chair of Georgia's independent commission that is in charge of removing bad judges from office quit in a tug of war with powerful legislators who want to be in charge. And he wrote a blistering resignation letter.
Lester Tate was chair of the Judicial Qualifications Commission.
Tate, a Cartersville attorney, quit because he says legislative leaders are trying to take over the commission, in order to protect their friends on the bench.
Of course, legislative leaders insist they're not trying to protect bad judges.
But they are trying to take over the JQC. And that's why Tate quit, in protest.
"The bottom line is, judicial ethics and politics simply do not mix," Tate said in an interview Tuesday with 11Alive News. "And we have been subject to an onslaught of political interference and meddling" from all three branches of Georgia government, especially the legislature. "A large cloud of political pollution has gathered over the Judicial Qualifications Commission."
The state constitution set up the Judicial Qualifications Commission decades ago as an independent commission responsible for 1) investigating complaints of judicial misconduct against judges -- and anyone can file a complaint with the JQC -- and 2) removing judges from office whenever the accusations are confirmed.
"If you go into court now," Tate said, "and the judge doesn't even consider your side, the judge violates rules of ethics, you need to have a place that will judge the judge.... In the past eight years the commission has removed more than sixty judges from the bench. I think that you can't overstate the value of having an independent commission that will look into these citizen complaints. What we've seen here is legislators that have come forward and just said, point blank, to folks, 'We don't like the way you've treated judges that we like. And for that reason, we're going to abolish you.' A system that only disciplines judges who are politically unpopular, and does absolutely nothing to judges who are popular, isn't a very fair system."
The legislature decided earlier this year to put the question to the voters in November -- to abolish the independent Judicial Qualifications Commission. The legislature would then create a new commission with members appointed by legislative leaders.
Tate said that, already, judges accused of misconduct are stalling their cases, hoping that in a few months their friends will be put in charge of the commission, and get them off the hook.
So Tate said he had to quit.
"Quite frankly, I'm just unwilling to, sort of, preside over a kangaroo court like that, that really does not decide matters based on the facts of the case, over what the judge did, but rather is clouded with political judgments."
Legislative leaders will ask voters to approve the changes in November as being fairer to judges who are accused of wrong-doing.