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Georgia amendment No. 3: Abolishing and re-forming the Judicial Qualifications Commission

In this series, we will preview what you need to know about the local contested races, constitutional amendments and special election ballot questions on your Nov. 8 ballot. This week, we looked at proposed amendments to the Georgia Constitution.

Other proposed amendments to the Georgia Constitution that will appear on your ballot:

* Amendment No. 1: Creating an Opportunity School District

* Amendment No. 2: Creating a support fund for child sex trafficking victims

* Amendment No. 4: Using tax revenue from firework sales for fire prevention and trauma care

WILL APPEAR AS: Reforms and reestablishes the Judicial Qualifications Commission and provides for its composition, governance and powers.

“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to abolish the existing Judicial Qualifications Commission; require the General Assembly to create and provide by general law for the composition, manner of appointment, and governance of a new Judicial Qualifications Commission, with such commission having the power to discipline, remove, and cause involuntary retirement of judges; require the Judicial Qualifications Commission to have procedures that provide for due process of law and review by the Supreme Court of its advisory opinions; and allow the Judicial Qualifications Commission to be open to the public in some manner?”

WHAT IT IS: The proposed amendment would abolish the Judicial Qualifications Commission, or JQC, and replace it with another committee that would answer to and be run out of the state legislature.

Currently, the JQC serves as an independent watchdog organization in the state of Georgia that polices the state’s judges, investigating cases of alleged judicial misconduct and/or alleged violations of the seven Canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

The commission was created in 1972, and since 2007 has removed nearly six dozen judges, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Though the JQC has no power to criminally prosecute judges it has found guilty of misconduct – it is only allowed to remove judges from the bench – prosecutors have, in the past, used the results of the JQC’s investigations to charge judges with breaking the law.

North Georgia magistrate Bryan Cochran was one of those charged, and later convicted, of organizing a plot to “plant drugs on a woman after she publically accused [Cochran] of propositioning her in his chambers,” the AJC reported.

The JQC investigation into Cochran was largely credited in helping to secure his conviction, and the commission has received awards for its work to weed out and punish misbehaving state judges.

However, the organization has also come under fire, with its critics accusing the commission of unfairly targeting judges who disagree with some of the JQC’s policies.

Others call the JQC’s actions “shakedowns” and say the commission has too many internal problems for it to effectively oversee state judges’ conduct.

Even Richard Hyde, a member of the JQC, told a Georgia House of Representatives committee that some JQC members don’t show up for meetings and others don’t receive information about the cases they are expected to hear.

“I think we are impotent, we have had a lack of leadership for various reasons,” the AJC reported he said.

The proposed amendment to abolish the current JQC has been strongly backed by former Superior Court judge Johnnie Caldwell, who resigned from the judiciary in 2010 after being accused of making sexually suggestive and lewd comments to a female attorney.

Caldwell is now a representative for State House District 131, which includes Lamar, Pike and Upson counties.

Josh Belinfante, an attorney with Robbins Ross Alloy Belinfante Littlefield, LLC, said he is planning to vote in favor of the amendment.

“I’ve read the concerns of opponents and I don’t think the legislature is going use the JQC as a way to control the appointments of judges,” he said. “[Although] I haven’t had any concerns with the JQC as currently exists, expanding the appointment process is not a bad thing.

“The [legislature] already controls the judiciary budget and they don’t abuse that authority to threaten the independence of the judiciary – which in my opinion, is far more powerful than the JQC – so I don’t think with this [amendment] they are seeking to control the judiciary.”

Belinfante also noted that the state legislature has had the opportunity to slash the judiciary’s budget, which he thinks would be an effective way to control judges, but they haven’t, thus giving him faith little would change if the state government had control of the JQC.

When asked, Forsyth County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey S. Bagley said he could not comment on the issue.

“It would be ethically improper for me to comment on a political issue,” he said, “and I cannot and would not do that.”