Denise Majette (Catherine Lovette/Daily Report)
The state Supreme Court’s split decision to disbar a former judge and member of Congress mirrored a division among bar discipline authorities.
The high court on Friday voted 4-2 to disbar Denise Majette, citing multiple violations of bar rules, including fraudulent billing in an estate case.
Majette did not respond to requests for comment.
Majette was a DeKalb County State Court judge from 1993 to 2002, when she left the bench to run for Congress. Majette upset incumbent U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney in the Democratic primary and won the congressional seat, but she later launched failed bids for U.S. Senate and state school superintendent. Majette had been working in private practice since 2005.
In 2012, a special master appointed to Majette’s case, Holland & Knight partner Harold Daniel Jr., concluded that Majette violated several bar rules and recommended disbarment. Both the bar’s Investigative Panel and Majette then requested the bar’s Review Panel look over the special master’s findings.
In August 2013, the Review Panel unanimously recommended a three-year suspension instead of disbarment, citing Majette’s distinguished career and noting that this was her first infraction. But a week later, the State Bar of Georgia asked the high court to disbar Majette despite the Review Panel’s recommendation.
“Respondent [Majette] should be disbarred for her multiple violations of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct, including her dishonesty, deceit and misrepresentations to her client … and because she expressed no remorse for her misconduct,” stated the bar’s request submitted by Senior Assistant General Counsel Jonathan Hewett on Aug. 21, 2013.
The high court’s majority opinion cited the special master’s report.
“The special master found that by submitting wholly unsupported and materially misleading time sheets and invoices to her client, misrepresenting her hours and fees to the court, and misrepresenting in the disciplinary process the payments received, Majette committed several violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct,” the unsigned majority opinion stated. “The special master found as a mitigating factor that Majette has no prior disciplinary record, but found as aggravating factors that there were multiple offenses, submission of false statements or evidence in the trust litigation and the disciplinary process, refusal to acknowledge the wrongful nature of her conduct, and substantial experience in the practice of law.”
Presiding Justice P. Harris Hines and Justices Carol Hunstein, David Nahmias and Keith Blackwell made up the majority. The high court said Justice Robert Benham didn’t participate in the case.
Justice Harold Melton, joined by Chief Justice Hugh Thompson, wrote in dissent that a “prolonged suspension with conditions for reinstatement, rather than disbarment, would be a more appropriate sanction” because of Majette’s 30 years of “distinguished service to the bench and bar.”
Majette was experiencing financial problems in 2008 while also working as a part-time real estate agent, according to the majority opinion.
“As a result, she sought a loan from a lawyer with whom she was acquainted,” the opinion stated. The lawyer, identified in state bar filings as John Lawson of Avondale Estates, declined to loan Majette money but asked her to assist in an estate dispute in 2009. Lawson, who is also a member of the DeKalb County Board of Tax Assessors, declined to comment on the Supreme Court’s decision. However, he said he regretted the entire situation and no longer has contact with the former judge, whom he once held in high regard.
“I’ve been sad about the whole thing,” said Lawson, who is now retired from law. “I just wish none of it had happened that way. I thought she would be a great addition, and, for a time, she was a real help. I had no idea it would spin out of control.”
According to disciplinary file records, Majette agreed to charge $200 per hour but later filed a motion for attorney fees in the case, without prior approval from Lawson, claiming a rate of $500 an hour.
Lawson said he was taken aback by Majette’s filing and had it withdrawn. “I told her it surprised me,” he said.The opinion also stated that Majette billed her clients for improper charges, including excessive time for reading emails and attending hearings, a telephone conference that did not take place, an authorized and unrelated Continuing Legal Education seminar and a social outing. “Majette did not keep contemporaneous time records, but reconstructed her time sheets and invoices from memory and from notes on her calendar or computer,” the opinion stated.
In addition to allegations of overbilling by thousands of dollars, Majette took legal action against her clients to collect the money, including filing a lien and a breach of contract action against them, which the lead lawyer opposed and were ultimately dismissed by the trial court.
Majette denied the allegations against her in response filings in the bar’s disciplinary records and characterized the matter as a fee dispute. Majette also objected to the special master’s findings in her case, arguing that he erred in failing to provide her with a free transcript of the bar’s evidentiary hearing in her case and in allowing a witness to bring a pet dog to the hearing. However, her arguments failed to sway the majority of the Supreme Court.
“Throughout the disciplinary process, Majette never conceded any possibility of error in the time sheets or billing statements, showed no remorse, and steadfastly maintained entitlement to additional payments,” the majority opinion stated.