A personal relationship that developed on Facebook apparently sparked the end of a 17-year judicial career for Mountain Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Ernest H. Woods III.
The judge, known as Bucky Woods, resigned effective Jan. 15 in a Dec. 29 letter to Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue that followed within days the publication of information about his Facebook dialog with a woman who was a defendant in a matter pending before his court.
"I call it a retirement," Woods told the Fulton County Daily Report on Tuesday. "I just got tired of living under a microscope." Woods noted that he is fully vested in the state pension plan, dating back to 1987 when he became a solicitor for the Habersham County State Court in Clarkesville, where he still lives. He is 54.
"I'm wanting to move forward," he said.
Woods' departure from the bench effectively ends inquiries being made in the circuit from the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates complaints against judges. The JQC, whose workings are confidential by law, has made no public statement of any investigation regarding Woods.
JQC investigator Richard Hyde said he could not talk about Woods, other than to say there is no official investigation of the judge.
"There hasn't been one, isn't one and isn't going to be one," Woods said. "That's what they told me."
Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Brian M. Rickman said his office received inquiries from the JQC about Woods and the Facebook communications, documented by a series of e-mails that landed on the DA's desk last October when relatives of a defendant in drug court came in to complain that Woods was unfairly holding their son in jail. The family presented printed copies of 33 pages of e-mails from April to September in 2009 between the judge and 35-year-old Tara Elizabeth Black of Clarkesville, who had been involved with their son. The e-mails showed a developing personal relationship between Black and the judge. In the e-mails, Black prevailed on the judge for his help with her friend's case in drug court -- where Woods presided -- as well as a case of her own in which she was accused of theft by deception for not making payments on a loan.
Black did not respond to messages the Daily Report left on her cell phone.
The Daily Report reviewed a copy of the district attorney's response to an open records request by the Clayton Tribune, which contained the e-mails, and authenticated the e-mails in a follow-up conversation with the DA.
The e-mails began with the judge contacting Black on Facebook, saying he noticed she worked for a hair salon and was thinking of finding someone new to give him a haircut. She responded that she did not cut hair, but offered to make him an appointment with a colleague, and then gave him her work and cell phone numbers. In subsequent e-mails they discussed her case and that of her friend, and eventually agreed to meet. After their first meeting, the woman asked the judge later in the day to loan her money to pay rent.
In the case involving her male friend, Black pressed Woods to help get him out of jail, saying she felt badly that his probation was revoked because of a photo she posted on her Facebook page in which he was holding a beer, which violated the terms of his probation. She said the man had not consumed alcohol on that occasion, and was only holding the drink so its owner could take the photo. She offered the judge a year of free massages from a friend in return for his help, then added that it was a joke, "LOL," and "I'm not really trying to bribe you."
The judge responded that he could not discuss her friend's case, but that holding an alcoholic drink constitutes possession.
The judge responded differently to Black's request for help in her own case. He advised her on the strategy of how and when to respond in court and how to plead and said he was discussing the matter with the DA on her behalf. He signed an order on June 23, 2009, allowing her to be released on her own recognizance so she wouldn't have to post a cash bond. He also told her he negotiated a "deferred prosecution" agreement with the DA, and maneuvered to "buy you some time" to get the money together to pay the debt, and said he would sign a dismissal once the money was paid. He advised her not to talk to anyone about the arrangement. "I can help you more behind the scenes so long as very few people know it," he said.
At one point, the judge referred to her arraignment date as their first opportunity to meet, and said he would be "doing it." But then the arraignment was delayed.
Later, they apparently met for the first time at a Wal-Mart at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 24. Later that day, he told her in an e-mail, "I really enjoyed lunch today, and I look forward to getting to know you better ... maybe we can have coffee soon?"
An hour later, at 2:51 p.m., she wrote, "OK. I am going to be really brave and ask you a favor." She continued that she needed money to get her "own place again" and asked him to loan her $700.
He answered that he couldn't come up with the entire $700, but offered $450 and asked if that would help.
She answered, "OMG! Yes."
They arranged a meeting the following Tuesday at her new apartment. At 1:24 p.m., he wrote, "I really like your apartment," and suggested that she invite him back again.
Woods said he didn't want to discuss the e-mails, which he said were "obviously fake." Upon further questioning, Woods said, "some were real and some were fake." But he did not say which ones were fake.
Rickman said he met with Woods privately to review the Facebook messages. The judge then recused from the case involving the woman's male friend in an order signed Oct. 13, saying he had a conflict. The theft case against the woman was dropped because it should have been a civil matter to begin with, Rickman said, since it was a dispute over money she borrowed from an individual.
Rickman said he made a decision not to prosecute the judge because he saw no criminal violation.
"There was not any sort of allegation that anyone committed a crime," said Rickman, referring to Woods' conduct. And Woods' recusal in the drug court case involving the woman's friend addressed the appearance of impropriety, Rickman said.
However, the judge's communications appear to conflict with the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct. Canon one says "Judges shall participate in establishing, maintaining and enforcing high standards of conduct." Canon two says, "Judges shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all their activities." Canon three says, "Judges shall not allow their family, social, political or other relationships to influence their judicial conduct or judgment. Judges shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others."
The e-mails became public when the Clayton Tribune, made an open records request for the Facebook messages and other documents related to the woman's theft case and her friend's drug court case. The newspaper published an article. Inquiries from the JQC began. The judge's resignation quickly followed.
Woods said he prefers to call it retirement, rather than quitting, but noted another term from his past. "On construction crews where I worked my way through school, we called it dragging up," Woods said.
He worked in construction by day while he attended night classes at Atlanta Law School, where he earned his J.D. in 1980.
Woods began his legal career practicing in Marietta, but moved to Clarkesville in 1983 and opened a general practice, which he continued even during his years as solicitor general, a part-time position. He left the solicitor's office and private practice when he was elected to an open superior court judgeship in 1992. He took office Jan. 1, 1993.
Woods said he will likely return to private practice in Clarkesville. "I think there are more opportunities in the rural, unlawyered areas," he said.
And he figures his judicial experience will be an asset. "I know the things that aggravate judges and will try not to do them," he said. "I'm looking forward to getting out of the spotlight and having a nice lil ole country practice."