By Carrie Teegardin
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Twiggs County Probate Court Judge Kenneth E. Fowler had a habit of doing things judges are not supposed to do, according to a Judicial Qualifications Commission investigation.
The judge expressed bias from the bench, misstated the law to defendants and engaged in ex parte communications, according to the commission’s Notice of Formal Proceedings. He referred to black people in court as “colored” and screamed at a defendant to “shut up.”
He even insinuated that a defendant provided sexual favors to a state trooper. The judge allegedly told the defendant: “You must be something good. You must have really showed [the officer] a good time.”
Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates complaints against judges, accused Fowler of 16 counts of judicial misconduct in June. But if you get a traffic ticket in Twiggs County, Judge Fowler will likely rule on it. He’s still on the bench and probably will be for a while.
Georgians who turn to the commission to investigate and unseat errant judges must accept that when the accused is a judge, justice moves at a snail’s pace and almost entirely in secret.
The commission last week set a December trial date for Fowler’s case, which had been in limbo since the charges were filed. A “confidential” investigation of Superior Court Judge Oliver Harris “Harry” Doss Jr., who presides in North Georgia, has dragged on so long that it is now widely known even though no formal charges have been filed.
Seven volunteers — attorneys, judges and non-lawyer citizens — serve on Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Commission. It is staffed by a former prosecutor who works part time, a secretary and an investigator. That’s one of the slimmest staffs in the nation.
Every state with more than 1,000 judges — except Georgia — employs at least two full-time lawyers to investigate complaints, as do most states with as few as 300 judges, according to the American Judicature Society. Georgia has about 1,800 judges.
The commission’s budget for this fiscal year is $259,000. State budget cuts are expected to further diminish the meager resources of the commission, which still owes $90,000 in legal fees on its last major cases.
“The bottom line is, we don’t have the money to pay our investigator or our attorney,” said Robert Ingram, a Marietta lawyer and member of the commission.
The commission, which receives about 400 complaints a year, is able to proceed with its case against Fowler only because former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers has agreed to help, whether he’s paid or not.
“That’s the only way we can function at this point,” Ingram said.
Bowers said he agreed to take the case because of its importance to the citizens of Georgia. Most judges are qualified and ethical, Bowers said, but “when you’ve got a bad one, something has got to be done.”
Fowler declined to be interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The commission’s charges against Fowler are serious and wide-ranging. He is accused of allowing another judge to influence him in a DUI case involving that judge’s friend. He permitted someone who acknowledged in court that he does not speak Spanish to attempt to act as court interpreter for a Spanish-speaking friend, according to the charges.
Because the majority of the commission’s work is secret, it’s impossible for the public to assess how well it protects citizens from judges who disregard legal ethics or the law. Complaints are confidential. Commission meetings are closed. A citizen who files a complaint is not allowed to acknowledge it.
Only when the commission decides to initiate formal charges does a case become public.
Cheryl Fisher Custer, the commission’s executive director, said cases can take months because investigating a judge, usually an elected official, requires time and special care.
But months-long, top-secret investigations allow judges accused of misconduct to continue to rule on countless cases before action is taken.
The commission last week confirmed an ongoing investigation against Superior Court Judge Harry Doss. The probe has been rumored for months in the north Georgia circuit where he presides. Doss acknowledged the investigation and expressed frustration that the rules don’t allow him to discuss the details.
“I certainly have a great deal to say, but I’m just prohibited,” Doss said. “It’s been very difficult.”
While the details of the commission’s investigation of Doss are under wraps, local attorneys and residents who have appeared in his court complained in interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of incidents ranging from rudeness to a failure to rule on motions before him. Public filings contained accusations of bias.
The commission could file public charges or drop the case with no public notice.
Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed Doss in 2005 to the Superior Court in the Appalachian Judicial Circuit, which serves Fannin, Gilmer and Pickens counties.
Doss acknowledges he has a strong personality and strong opinions. But he said he is deliberate and fair on the bench. “As a judge, I am quite open-minded,” he said.
Rick Wilcox, a retired member of the Georgia State Patrol, sees Judge Doss in a different light. Wilcox and his wife, Sherry, were sued by a builder they had worked with. The couple counter-sued and alleged fraud.
Wilcox said during 25 years in law enforcement he never encountered a judge like Doss.
“When the jury was sent out of the room, Doss went off like an atomic bomb,” he said. “I had never seen a grown man pitch a fit like a child. He was throwing pens and papers. He got off the bench and came up to the rail and acted like he was going to rip our heads off.”
The jury ordered the builder involved in the dispute to pay Wilcox and his wife $200,000 in restitution, $450,000 in punitive damages, plus attorney fees. Wilcox and his wife have yet to collect any money awarded in the 2007 verdict and they say because of Doss, they worry they never will.
Doss waited 13 months to rule on a post-trial motion to reduce the punitive damage award and 21 months to rule on a motion for a new trial, according to Fannin County court records. The case is now being appealed.
Wilcox believes the builder lost most of his assets while Doss delayed the case. Meanwhile, Wilcox incurred almost $50,000 in legal fees. “One person with a gavel can make you wonder — does justice for all still exist?” Wilcox said.
Doss said he could not discuss specifics, but acknowledged he has taken a long time to rule in some cases.
“I was a colonel in the Army. I don’t have trouble making a decision,” Doss said. “But sometimes it requires a great deal of research and study.”
Doss earned praise from some local attorneys. “We find him to be fair, to demonstrate genuine concern for our clients and to be able to convey that concern to the clients,” said Michael Parham, the Appalachian circuit’s public defender.
Norman Underwood, a high-profile Atlanta attorney who is representing Doss, refused to comment on the investigation because of commission rules. But he said the area where Doss presides is intensely polarized politically. “The political campaign just never ended and people have been taking shots at Judge Doss throughout his service on the bench,” Underwood said.
Two other local attorneys, however, have alleged bias and Doss granted their requests to keep their cases out of his court.
Jasper attorney George Weaver accused Doss of personal bias against him, saying Doss gave one of Weaver’s clients a harsh sentence to punish Weaver. Doss recused himself from Weaver’s cases.
Ellijay attorney Rob Ray is also excused from Doss’ courtroom.
One of Doss’ colleagues, Superior Court Judge Roger Bradley, filed an affidavit saying that Doss stopped by his office one morning and said, “Why don’t you come into my courtroom and watch! I am going to ‘barbecue’ Rob Ray.”
Ray was appearing before Doss in a divorce matter in which he believes Doss engaged in a host of improprieties.
Ray said he has confidence in the Judicial Qualifications Commission, praising the dedication of the commission’s staff and members. But he said they don’t have the resources to protect Georgia citizens.
“Having an impartial judicial officer is absolutely essential before you can have due process and a fair hearing,” Ray said. “In my instance, I did not have an impartial judicial officer. So the result was a disaster.”
Judicial Qualifications Commission
The board accepts and investigates complaints of judicial misconduct, incapacity or impairment of judges. All of Georgia’s 1,800 judges, whether they are presiding on the Supreme Court or in Probate Court fall under the commission’s jurisdiction.
The commission consists of seven members appointed to four-year terms. The state Supreme Court appoints two members who are judges, the State Bar of Georgia appoint three attorneys and the governor appoints two citizens who are neither judges nor lawyers.