Thursday, March 16, 2023
For Judges Only
The Georgia Supreme Court has ordered a remand in a judicial misconduct matter where the Judicial Qualifications Committee had proposed removal from office
the JQC - both the Director and the Hearing Panel — made two critical legal errors that prevent us from resolving this matter now. First, both the Director and the Hearing Panel determined that the JQC has “jurisdiction” over conduct that occurs before a person becomes a judge or judicial candidate, and thus could pursue counts against Judge Coomer regarding prejudicial conduct. That is wrong. The Code of Judicial Conduct plainly applies only to conduct by judges and judicial candidates while they are judges or judicial candidates — indeed, the JQC acknowledged as much in two separate filings with this Court, not long before filing formal charges against Judge Coomer. Inexplicably, however, neither the Director’s argument to the Hearing Panel nor the Hearing Panel’s conclusion even acknowledges the JQC’s previous position; the Director’s only acknowledgement of that position came after Judge Coomer raised the issue last week, and still fails to engage with the relevant text. The Code of Judicial Conduct simply has no application to conduct by people who are not yet judges or judicial candidates, even if they later become a judge or judicial candidate.
Second, both the Director and the Hearing Panel failed to understand the circumstances in which the Constitution and our case law permits judicial discipline. Longstanding precedent makes clear that although actions taken in a judicial capacity — acting as a judge, not merely while a judge — can warrant discipline regardless of good faith, actions taken outside a judicial capacity can warrant discipline only when taken in bad faith. None of the counts against Judge Coomer allege any actions taken in a judicial capacity, and so, in order to prevail on those counts, the Director would need to prove bad faith by clear and convincing evidence. But the Director instead argued that even mere negligence would warrant discipline, without acknowledging our case law to the contrary. And the Hearing Panel accepted that argument, recommending removal based on an apparent assumption that it did not matter whether Judge Coomer violated the law knowingly or in ignorance. But bad faith requires more than ignorance, and because the Hearing Panel’s report and recommendation was ambiguous as to whether it found that Judge Coomer acted with bad faith, without clearer findings we cannot determine what, if any, discipline is appropriate.