by Henry Sewell
Although the Presidential race occupies the top of Georgia’s Nov. 8 ballot and the first screen on most voting machines, that’s not the only thing that Georgia voters must decide. Scrollling down, they’ll see four proposed amendments to the State Constitution that could affect the balance of power or the flow of dollars
Amendment 3 would change how members of the Judicial Qualifications Commission are selected, an issue that is not on the radar for most voters.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission is an independent organization that investigates and prosecutes judges accused of abusing their power or managing their courtrooms inappropriately. The seven members of the JQC are selected by the members of the Supreme Court of Georgia, representatives of the State Bar, and the Governor.
If Amendment 3 passes, however, that will change. The General Assembly will choose JQC members responsible for overseeing how judges behave, without input from Supreme Court judges or State Bar representatives.
Members of the legal community aren’t happy.
The proposed amendment “injects politics into a sphere where politics shouldn’t govern,” says Sara Totonchi, Executive Director of the Southern Center of Human Rights. “In order for the JQC to do its work effectively, it needs to be independent from politics.”
The description of Amendment 3 on the ballot is worded in a way that could confound many voters.
“I think [citizens] need to be, with this bill and every other bill, aware of exactly what it does and the unintended consequences,” said former Dougherty County District Attorney Ken Hodges.
Currently a trial lawyer in Albany and Atlanta, Hodges said “the unintended consequences of [Amendment 3] is that it removes the power of appointment from the State Bar, which is apolitical, and puts it in the hands of legislature which is very political.”
“If Amendment 3 were to pass, if a judge were to find himself in trouble, he could simply call his friends who are in the legislature and ask them to make the trouble go away. This would impede the JQC’s ability to take out problematic judges,” said Totonchi.
“You can’t get much closer to the fox guarding the hen house than Amendment 3,” she added.
State Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), takes the opposite point of view. The current state of the JQC, he said, illustrates an aphorism attributed to 19th century English historian and moralist Lord Acton “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
As it stands now, “the seven-member commission serves as prosecutor, jury and judge – this due process is questionable,” said Willard. The Commission is so independent that no one has oversight over their actions.
The Supreme Court of Georgia and the JQC recently disagreed about guidelines for proper judicial conduct, and the JQC rejected the Court’s suggestions.
Willard proposed the constitutional amendment as a way of creating “checks and balances” by giving legislators more power over appointments and Commission actions.
Hodges believes the JQC’s duties should be changed so that they are not “both the prosecutor and the judge” when a judge is accused of malfeasance. But he doesn’t think that Amendment 3 is the solution.
“Right now, Amendment 3 is being driven by politics,” Hodges said. “When it’s being driven by politics I fear that the outcome is going to be political….and the JQC, more than anything else, needs to be apolitical.”
View Amendment 3 and the rest of the sample ballot online at https://www.athensclarkecounty.com/DocumentCenter/Home/View/35226