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Judge Resigns in Wake of Sexual Harassment ClaimsAn attorney's sexual harrassment allegations against a Georgia judge apparently led to his abrupt resignation last week during an interview with an investigator with the state Judicial Qualifications Commission. The judge scrawled a seven-line resignation on his judicial stationary and handed it to the investigator, who delivered it to the governor. Attached to the resignation was a separate, handwritten consent order in which the judge wrote: "I hereby agree to never seek or accept judicial office again."
Daily Report2010-04-26 12:00:00 AM
An attorney's allegations of sexual harrassment against a Fayette Superior Court judge apparently led to his abrupt resignation last week during an interview with an investigator with the state Judicial Qualifications Commission. After Superior Court Judge Johnnie L. Caldwell Jr. of Georgia's Griffin Circuit scrawled a seven-line resignation on his judicial stationary last Monday, he handed it to Richard Hyde, an investigator with the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, who delivered it to Gov. Sonny Perdue later that day.
Attached to the resignation was a separate, handwritten consent order -- accepted and signed by Hyde -- in which Caldwell wrote: "I hereby agree to never seek or accept judicial office again."
The condition never to seek or accept a future judicial post is one the JQC generally imposes on judges who are the subject of an investigation but resign before the agency issues charges. Last December, the JQC filed charges against Appalachian Circuit Superior Court Judge Oliver Harris "Harry" Doss Jr. after he resigned midway through a JQC investigation but, according to Doss and his attorney, refused to sign an agreement that he would never again seek or accept a judicial post.
Caldwell resigned the same day that attorneys in a Fayette County divorce case filed a motion in Fayette County Superior Court claiming that Caldwell had made inappropriate comments to Peachtree City attorney Susan M. Brown and engaged in conduct that "resulted in biased rulings against the defendant or no rulings on motions at all" in violation of the state's judicial canons. Brown is divorce counsel for defendant Janet Bell Crook in the Fayette County case.
Brown declined to discuss Caldwell's resignation or the unspecified improprieties attributed to Caldwell in the motion. But Gary S. Freed, a lawyer at Chamberlain, Hrdlicka, White, Williams & Martin who also is representing Crook, told the Daily Report, "Basically, our position was the judge [Caldwell] was not impartial. He was engaged in persistent improper conduct toward counsel [Susan Brown] which was of a sexist and intimidating nature, which we believe impacted his rulings in the case."
Brown rejected the judge's repeated overtures, Freed said. Brown later complained about Caldwell's conduct to Paschal A. English Jr., the circuit's chief judge. English "ignored it," according to Freed.
The Crook divorce motion also accuses two of Caldwell's judicial colleagues of demonstrating an apparent bias against Brown and her client. The motion claims that, in dealing with Brown's allegations of improprieties, English and Superior Court Judge Christopher C. Edwards, who also have presided over hearings in the Crook divorce, may have acted improperly.
Edwards and English filed orders recusing in the Crook divorce on Wednesday, two days after Caldwell's resignation. Caldwell presided over the Crook divorce case for more than two years, but it has rotated among three other judges in the circuit, including Caldwell and English, even though, until this week, none of the judges had filed recusals.
English did not return calls for comment. Edwards, who last year was nominated by his circuit colleagues as a candidate for a seat on the Supreme Court of Georgia, declined comment through a member of his staff.
On Thursday, JQC Executive Director Cheryl Custer declined to comment on the circumstances that led the commission's investigator to accept Caldwell's resignation. "We do not discuss and can't confirm or deny any proceedings of the commission until formal charges are filed," Custer said. JQC rules and the Georgia Constitution mandate that "confidentiality must be maintained until formal charges are filed," Custer said. Hyde, the investigator, declined to discuss the matter.
Caldwell didn't return repeated calls by the Daily Report or respond to multiple messages left at his office and home. A woman who answered the telephone at his home on Thursday said he had left town and could not be reached for comment.
In his resignation letter, Caldwell -- who was re-elected without opposition in November 2008 -- states, "I am 63 years old and want time to visit with my grandkids and maybe practice law."
Caldwell, whose resignation is effective Monday, told WSB-TV on Wednesday night that he resigned after the JQC's investigator confronted him with what the judge described as "inappropriate" comments he had made to female attorneys, whom he did not identify, and requested his resignation. Caldwell told WSB-TV he resigned "to make amends" for his inappropriate language. He asserted in the TV interview that none of his behavior involved breaking the law, none of the inappropriate remarks occurred in court and none involved any rulings he had made while on the bench.
Caldwell said he resigned because, "You shouldn't be there -- me or anybody else -- with a cloud that you have done something unprofessional," adding, "I admitted it. That's what you are supposed to do when you are wrong."
The allegations against Caldwell contained in the Crook divorce motion on Monday, a supplemental motion filed the following day and affidavits from Brown and her co-counsel, Gregory A. Futch -- who is also a municipal judge in McDonough -- paint a more complex picture and suggest Edwards, once he learned of the allegations against Caldwell, may have pressured Brown and her client to waive any issues connected to the allegations against Caldwell as he attempted to address the thorny questions surrounding the alleged improprieties. Those motions seek Edwards' disqualification or recusal.
According to the pleadings, Caldwell – who presided over the Crook divorce case in 2008 and 2009 – exhibited improper conduct and made improper statements to Brown that resulted in biased rulings or no rulings at all for Brown's client, Janet Bell Cook. Caldwell never formally recused, but in 2009, the Crook divorce appeared on the calendar of another judge in the circuit, Tommy R. Hankinson. The case was continued and then apparently reassigned to English. Hankinson filed a recusal order on Tuesday.
According to Brown's affidavit at a hearing in October 2009, English informed counsel he would not rule on any other motions until the case was ready to be tried. "Several motions were filed and went unheard by Judge English during this time," Brown's affidavit stated, even though the plaintiff stopped paying alimony and car payments to Brown's client in the case and repeatedly denied her access to her children. "Defendant was left without the ability to get matters heard."
This year, the Crook divorce case again was reassigned, this time to Edwards. After Edwards learned of the allegations against Caldwell in early April, he convened a hearing to discuss Caldwell's alleged improprieties, according to the motion.
During that hearing, Edwards suggested that if what he had been told about Caldwell was true, orders that Caldwell had previously entered in the case "would have been improperly entered and should not be enforced." Edwards also informed counsel for both parties that he would not go forward with the divorce trial unless counsel submitted waivers "of all issues they may have in relation to any allegations of judicial impropriety regarding Judge Caldwell," according to the recusal motion.
Without waivers, according to the motion, Edwards said he would recuse. He then scheduled an April 12 hearing to address the waiver issue.
At that hearing, defendant Crook said she would not waive her right to address any legal issues surrounding the allegations against Caldwell. Her husband's counsel objected, suggesting that the case proceed immediately to trial "and if any issues regarding judicial impropriety came up during the case, Judge Edwards could address them at that time," according to the motion.
Brown and Futch objected, saying they were not prepared to go to trial that day and asked for additional time to consult legal counsel on the impropriety question, according to the divorce motion.
Around that time, English entered the courtroom, interrupted the hearing and asked to speak with Edwards, according to the motion. The two judges retired to Edwards' chambers, but their conversation "could be overheard in the courtroom," the motion stated.
"Upon his return, Judge Edwards' demeanor had visibly changed toward defendant's counsel's request," and the judge suggested that the trial begin immediately, the motion stated.
Edwards then ordered Futch to pen an order for Edwards to sign giving Crook seven days to file any objections to earlier court orders or consider them waived and noting that he would recuse if any objections were filed.
The judge then allowed Crook's husband's lawyer to insert a paragraph in the order dictating that Crook would have to return all funds that her estranged husband had paid to her as a result of any orders her attorneys might challenge.
"Judge Edwards then told the parties that he was inclined to start the trial in an hour unless the defendant agreed to the order with the language written by opposing counsel," according to the motion. "In response, counsel for defendant informed Judge Edwards … that the consent given to the language in the April 12 order was not voluntary."
That order and Edwards insistence that Brown and Futch sign it, despite their client's objections, became the basis for the recusal motion "because [Edwards'] impartiality might reasonably be questioned," according to the motion. "Judge Edwards' impartiality might reasonably be questioned based upon the improprieties alleged in and tainting his action before Judges Caldwell and English, the statements and events leading up to and culminating in the April 12 order, and the entry of the April 12 order itself. The fact that Judge Edwards' impartiality might reasonably be questioned suffices for his disqualification."
That ruling, Freed said, cost Crook "tens of thousands of extra dollars. The whole process is tainted now."