Wednesday, June 22, 2022
The Georgia Supreme Court has publicly reprimanded a circuit court judge
On July 5, 2019, the Athens Banner-Herald published an article about a defendant who had an outstanding bench warrant for failing to appear in court for the retrial of his rape charges. Judge Norris had presided over the first trial, which resulted in a mistrial, and released the defendant on his own recognizance. On that same day, Nathan Owens, a bail bondsman who works in Clarke and Oconee counties, reposted the story to his personal Facebook page and to a large Facebook group called “Overheard at UGA”; Owens included his thoughts of Judge Norris’s handling of the case and his opinion that the defendant should not have been released on his own recognizance. Owens’s post gained a lot of attention, eventually prompting Judge Norris to contact another bondsman, John Elliott, in an effort to get in contact with Owens. On July 9, at the suggestion of Elliott, Owens texted Judge Norris, and Judge Norris told Owens to meet him in his office at 9:00 a.m. the following morning.
On the morning of July 10, Owens went to the courthouse with Elliott and another bondsman, Scott Hall. When the trio arrived at Judge Norris’s chambers, an armed deputy took their cell phones. Judge Norris then arrived, visibly upset, and instructed Elliott and Hall to remain in the lobby while Owens went into Judge Norris’s office. A deputy stood in the only apparent doorway. With his lip quivering and hands shaking, Judge Norris instructed Owens to “sit down and listen to what I have to say.” In a raised voice, Judge Norris began reading from the statutory bondsman code of conduct, which he had printed out in preparation for the meeting. Becoming nervous, Owens requested to have his lawyer present, but Judge Norris ignored this request. Instead, Judge Norris allowed Elliott and Hall to come into his office, and Owens asked them to witness that he wanted to leave or have his attorney present. Owens felt that he was not free to leave, sat quietly, and did not respond to Judge Norris’s berating. Ultimately, Judge Norris went on for about 30 minutes, chastising and lecturing Owens, implying that Owens did not have “good moral character,” insinuating that Judge Norris had the power to affect Owens’s livelihood as a bondsman, and reprimanding Owens for attacking him online and spreading “fake news” about the rape case.
Owens filed a judicial complaint.
While we are also unable to find a Georgia case where a respondent like Judge Norris exhibited planning or pre-meditation before his or her intemperate behavior, courts in other jurisdictions have imposed a range of sanctions against judges for acts of intemperance where the conduct required some planning, including public reprimand, censure, and suspension...
Here, Judge Norris’s violations were based on non-habitual conduct, with no evidence that he used vulgar language or engaged in any sort of physical altercation on the occasion in question. But Judge Norris’s deliberate and conscious planning of this confrontation is particularly problematic, as his misconduct was not the result of a sudden or brief loss of temper. In fact, Owens’s Facebook post was posted a full five days before the meeting with Judge Norris, Judge Norris had to reach out to another bondsman to get in contact with Owens, Owens and Judge Norris exchanged multiple texts to arrange the meeting, Judge Norris set the meeting in his chambers, during business hours, Judge Norris printed out the statutory bondsman code of conduct, and then Judge Norris delivered an angry 30-minute monologue in a raised voice while
Owens was required to sit and listen with an armed deputy standing in the doorway. Judge Norris also denied Owens’s request to leave or have an attorney present and intimated that Judge Norris could harm Owens’s position as a bail bondsman. Moreover, Judge Norris “offered various justifications for his meeting with Owens,” but the Panel found the testimony “inconsistent and contradicted by other evidence.” Panel Report at 10. Thus, unlike the judge in Hays, Judge Norris has not fully accepted responsibility for this incident.
The court declined to order the judge to apologize
Judge Norris’s failure to apologize to Owens on his own initiative suggests that a public apology compelled by this Court, even if permissible, would be insincere at best.
The worst, most intense chambers tongue-lashing I ever received was for being late for a chambers conference by District Judge C. Stanley Blair.
Still smarting after 47 years! (Mike Frisch)