Judge Michael Boggs said he didn't authorize his name to be on a Bush reelection committee.
Judge Michael Boggs said he didn’t authorize his name to be on a Bush reelection committee. (Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi)

Facing the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs said the Georgia law prevented him from discussing his views on abortion.

But one senator suggested Boggs, seeking confirmation to a seat on the U.S. District Court, may have violated the state code of judicial conduct 10 years ago as a candidate for the Waycross Circuit Superior Court and two years ago as sitting judge.

At issue was Canon 7 of the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct, which says, “Judges Shall Refrain from Political Activity Inappropriate to their Judicial Office.”

Canon 7A (1) (a) says, “A judge or a candidate for public election to judicial office shall not … make speeches for a political organization or candidate or publicly endorse a candidate for public office.”

Canon 7A (1) (c) says a judge or candidate shall not “make a contribution to a political organization.”

On Tuesday, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a committee member with a law degree and a master’s in ethics from Yale University, asked Boggs whether he had violated Georgia’s judicial ethics code in 2004 when, as a candidate for Superior Court, he joined a national steering committee to re-elect President George W. Bush.

Coons also suggested that Boggs had crossed “a line that’s fairly clear” when in 2012 the judge’s political campaign committee donated funds to Georgia Conservatives in Action, which Coons described as a “political organization.”

The cofounder of Georgia Conservatives in Action, headquartered in Baxley, has publicly described the group’s goal this year as “to put forth a group of candidates who we feel most reflect our principles of pro-family, pro-life, less government and less taxes.”

Georgia Conservatives in Action has also called for boycotts of Georgia-based Delta Airlines, The Coca-Cola Co. and The Home Depot as well as the InterContinental Hotel Group for their opposition to a state “religious liberty” bill that would make it easier for businesses that refused to serve customers—most notably members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities—to claim they are exempt from liability because they did so for religious reasons.

The organization’s Facebook page also includes a video that accuses the White House of harboring the Muslim Brotherhood.

The exchange between Coons and Boggs took place after Boggs had introduced to the committee as his guests two men who have significant influence over judicial discipline in Georgia: Hugh Thompson, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, and Richard Hyde, the chief investigator for the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, whom Boggs called a longtime friend.

Hyde was appointed to the JQC by Gov. Nathan Deal last year but stepped down from that role this year to return to his former job as the JQC’s investigator, a post he held for nearly eight years before he became a commissioner. Hyde’s investigations of judges accused of violating the judicial ethics code have ended dozens of judicial careers.

Thompson served as the liaison between the high court and the JQC until he was named chief justice. The JQC may only recommend disciplinary actions against judges. No judge may be formally disciplined by the JQC without the Supreme Court’s approval. Thompson declined to comment on Wednesday via a high court spokeswoman.

Hyde referred questions about his appearance at Boggs’ hearing to JQC Director Jeff Davis, who referred questions to JQC Chairman Robert Ingram. Ingram, a member of a six-member judicial vetting committee that advises U.S. senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, declined Wednesday to comment on Coons’ allegations that Boggs may have violated the state judicial ethics code.

The White House nominated Boggs last year as part of a package deal struck with Chambliss and Isakson. In return for giving their belated approval to Atlanta litigator Jill Pryor for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and to litigator Leigh Martin May for a district court seat in Atlanta, the two senators were allowed to designate nominees for a second Eleventh Circuit slot and three other district court seats.

Boggs, one of the senators’ choices, has run into vehement opposition from the president’s traditional allies, including abortion rights groups, gay rights groups and civil rights groups. They have spotlighted Boggs’ conservative votes while he was a member of the state House of Representatives from 2001 to 2004, representing the Waycross area.

Boggs could not be reached for comment and has repeatedly declined to respond to questions from the Daily Report, in keeping with protocols barring nominees from making any public comment prior to their confirmation.

Coons’ ethics challenge took place amid questions about Boggs’ support for a bill that successfully promoted a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, a bill creating a public registry of doctors who performed abortions, and his votes to retain Georgia’s state flag embedded with the Confederate battle emblem.

Boggs said it would be “inappropriate” and “a violation of the current code of Georgia to have any position” on matters surrounding a woman’s reproductive rights. Boggs similarly avoided questions about whether his views on abortion had changed, saying he didn’t want to take a position on a matter that might appear before him as a federal judge.

Coons then homed in on the state judicial code, asking whether the judge had violated Georgia’s judicial canons both as a Superior Court candidate in 2004 and while as a state appellate judge in 2012.

Boggs was appointed to the Georgia Court of Appeals in 2011 and was elected to the court in 2012. On Sept. 27, 2012, the Committee to Elect Mike Boggs Judge contributed $1,500 to Georgia Conservatives in Action, according to Boggs’ campaign financial disclosure report.

In asking Boggs whether he had violated Georgia’s judicial ethics code, Coons cited Canon 7-A, which says, in part, that a judge or candidate for public election to judicial office shall not make a contribution to a political organization. Boggs replied that he wasn’t certain that Georgia Conservatives in Action was a political organization.

The group’s Facebook page describes the group as a “social welfare organization” with tax-exempt status under 501(c)4 of the Internal Revenue Code.

But Coons noted that Georgia for Conservatives in Action has endorsed political candidates. This year, the organization endorsed David Pennington, who is challenging Gov. Nathan Deal for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, and Rep. Paul Broun for the U.S. Senate, among other candidates.

“The issue is of some concern to me in terms of crossing, I think, a line that’s fairly clear,” Coons said.

Boggs said that when his campaign made the contribution, “I had no knowledge of their sponsorship or endorsement of any candidate.”

Singling out Boggs’ prior comments that it would be inappropriate to state his position on women’s reproductive rights, Coons suggested that the ethics canons barring him from doing so “would have applied when you ran in 2004″ for a seat on the Waycross Circuit Superior Court.

Again citing Canon 7A’s prohibition of judges or judicial candidates from publicly endorsing a candidate for public office, Coons asked Boggs why he had agreed to be a member of the Bush-Cheney ’04 Democrats for Bush National Steering Committee. The committee website lists Boggs as a member as of Aug. 19, 2004, when he was actively campaigning for the Waycross judgeship in a nonpartisan race.

“To my knowledge, I have never been a member of that committee,” Boggs explained, adding that he had only recently discovered that he had been listed as a member. Boggs said he was listed as a committee member “by virtue of me attending the meeting prior to the fundraiser. … Everybody who attended that meeting was listed as a member.”

“It was done without my authority,” he added. “I had no knowledge of it.”

Boggs was one of a dozen Democratic Georgia legislators who in January 2004 endorsed the re-election of President George W. Bush at a $2,000-a-ticket fundraiser in Atlanta, according to The Associated Press. Boggs said at the time, “I think there are a lot of conservative Democrats in the Georgia Legislature that support President Bush.”

“I’m one of those but I think I’m only one of many,” Boggs said. “We support him on a number of issues, including his stance on the war in Iraq. We support him on his stance on the economy.”