A Grady County judge says he will testify at an ethics tribunal next month to defend himself against allegations that he repeatedly violated judicial ethics rules.
In a formal response to charges filed by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission in December, Grady County State Court Judge J. William Bass Sr. denied that he had broken any rules, insisting instead that he had "erred as to the scope of his discretionary powers."
The judge asked that the charges be dismissed. While acknowledging that he might display "an idiosyncratic style on occasion," Bass said he "finds offensive and false the allegations that he showed improper bias and prejudice against defendants or individuals in his court."
Bass also questioned the propriety of the commission’s dual role investigating and adjudicating alleged ethics violations. He added that the JQC’s chief investigator, Richard Hyde—whom Governor Nathan Deal recently appointed to the commission —should be barred from meeting with the commission during Bass’ trial or participating in its deliberations over his fate.
In December, the JQC filed charges with the Supreme Court of Georgia accusing Bass, a Cairo attorney and past president of the Council of State Court Judges of Georgia, of allowing social relationships to influence his judicial conduct. The JQC also accused Bass of illegally fining criminal defendants to boost his salary, verbally attacking people in his courtroom and retaliating against county contractors and others who had supported his political opponent in 2010.
The JQC also said Bass improperly appointed his son, who is also the judge’s law partner, to preside over state court whenever the senior Bass was not available; routinely escorted Hispanic defendants outside the courtroom in order to speak privately with them about their cases without either a court reporter or a prosecutor present; asked prosecutors to dismiss criminal cases because Bass knew members of the defendants’ families; and threatened members of the Georgia State Patrol who took exception to some of his rulings.
On Monday, the JQC filed new charges against Bass, claiming he has held at least one bench trial when a defendant failed to appear in court without determining why the defendant was absent.
Bass’ attorney, Christopher Townley, said the new charges were filed "without checking to hear his side of the story." But he noted that the JQC has dropped one earlier allegation, that Bass improperly exerted his judicial authority by asking the county sheriff to bar a bonding company from writing bonds because Bass allegedly believed the company owner was not supporting his re-election campaign.
Bass’ formal answer was filed Jan. 15, before the JQC issued its new charges. In it, the judge challenged JQC claims that he committed any ethical breach when he wrote a letter to county officials last year asking that his annual salary as a part-time judge be raised from $40,000 to $60,000 because fines and fees he assessed generated more than $350,000 a year for the county.
The JQC said Bass improperly assessed fines and local fees in violation of state laws—a practice that deprived the state of revenues while channeling unauthorized revenues to the county.
Bass’ response said that if he "erred in collecting the costs, he erred as to the scope of his discretionary powers. He did not intend to be disrespectful or fail to comply with the law. … [T]he error was not willful but was a clerical error."
The judge also insisted that his letter seeking a raise "was not written to advocate that he was entitled to a salary increase based upon the amount of funds collected. … Instead, the emphasis was on the extra work he dedicated and his basic needs for an increase."
Bass acknowledged allowing his son to fill in for him on the bench "on a limited basis for limited purposes." But, he said in his response, "This action was done for the benefit of the citizens of Grady County at no cost," and asserted that his son received no pay for his service.
"A judge is not prohibited from nepotism," Bass argued, although the canon in question states that a judge "shall avoid nepotism and favoritism" in appointing attorneys, special masters, receivers, guardians or court personnel. " But Bass said, "It is a stretch to say that having your son sacrifice to help out the citizens is what was intended by ‘nepotism’ in this canon."
Bass also took issue with charges stemming from an online conversation he had with a Facebook friend discussing the ramifications of a DUI charge that had resulted in the arrest of her brother.
The JQC said the online conversation crossed an ethical line once the judge conveyed that he was "in a special position to influence the handling of this DUI case" and suggested that her brother make sure the case was transferred to Bass’ court, where he would "handle it from there."
Bass claimed "the nature of the communication was much different than the spin" placed on it by the JQC and that the woman was not a personal friend "or even someone known to Judge Bass."
"However," the judge acknowledged, "the communication should have been handled differently."
Bass also denied that his practice of stepping down from the bench to talk privately with Hispanic defendants about their cases was improper. "A state court judge frequently deals with unprepared, unrepresented and inexperienced litigants," he said, adding that conversations with Hispanic defendants "were actually designed to insure the fairness of the process" and were permissible under a state canon that permits judges "with the consent of the parties" to confer separately with the parties or their lawyers "in an effort to mediate or settle matters before the court."
In his response, Bass said he did not remember whether he had paid the fine of a defendant he had sentenced for shoplifting—an allegation that the JQC said violated the state Code of Judicial Conduct. But he said he remembered a situation where he was willing to do so. "Under the circumstances," he said, "if Judge Bass did pay the fine, his actions would have brought respect from most of the citizenry."
Bass acknowledged terminating the services of a private probation company after he was re-elected in 2010. But he denied that he had done so to retaliate against its employees for not supporting his re-election. Bass claimed he had involved others in the decision "to insure that he was not acting unfairly."
"Judge Bass is not perfect," his response stated. "In hindsight, some matters should have been addressed differently. However, he has not intentionally violated his oath of office. He tried to temper justice with mercy. He has not acted corruptly or dishonestly."