Georgia Supreme Court (Photo: John Disney/ALM) Georgia Supreme Court (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

The Georgia Supreme Court on Friday issued a rare public reprimand for a judge charged with getting involved in an auto repossession case and advising the car’s owner to file a lawsuit.

The high court’s order resolves formal charges brought by Judicial Qualifications Commission Director Ben Easterlin against Tattnall County Chief Magistrate Judge Eddie Anderson.

Easterlin declined to comment on the matter Friday.

The high court issued a per curiam order Friday agreeing with the JQC that Anderson, despite his apparently good intentions, violated the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct by intervening in a dispute over repossession of a car on behalf of a woman who failed to make loan payments. The order said Anderson called the dealer to demand that the car be returned or that payments and insurance costs be refunded. When that failed, the commission charged, he advised the woman to sue the dealership owner—who was not even a party to the dispute between the car’s owner and the lender.

The JQC charged Anderson with violating rules of the Code of Judicial Conduct that require judges to “respect and comply with the law” and to “act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary.”

“Judge Anderson undermined the public integrity and impartiality of the judiciary by advising the woman to file a case by making ex parte demands before a case was even filed,” the justices said. “Moreover, Judge Anderson’s demands and the woman’s subsequent lawsuit violated clearly established law.”

Anderson is a nonlawyer judge in a rural county with a population of 25,000. The county seat is Reidsville, home to a maximum security state prison. Part of the magistrate’s job is hearing small civil disputes between parties representing themselves.

Reached at his office Friday, Anderson said he was only trying to help someone but added that he reckoned now “you can’t do that.”

“Although Judge Anderson may have initiated such communication with good intentions, calling the parties individually and conducting a personal investigation into an impending matter were both improper,” the court’s order said. “Accordingly, Judge Anderson initiated, permitted, and considered ex parte communications and impermissibly engaged in an independent investigation.”

The court endorsed a recommendation from the JQC’s investigative panel, which considered mitigating circumstances: “Judge Anderson’s cooperation in responding to the allegations of misconduct; his candor during the meeting, admitting to his mistakes and pledging to adhere to all provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct in the future; and the fact that his acts of misconduct were not undertaken in bad faith or with malice but rather with good intentions to resolve the underlying dispute.”

The judge said he was relieved the matter is resolved. “All that’s over with. It’s old stuff. It’s behind me now,” the judge said.

But it’s not quite. To carry out the order for the public reprimand, the court will appoint a judge from another jurisdiction to go to Tattnall County and read the reprimand in open court during business hours, with Anderson present.

A public reprimand is the most serious sanction the state can impose on a judge next to removal from office. Chattooga County Superior Court Judge Kristina Cook Connelly Graham—daughter of famed defense attorney Bobby Lee Cook—was reprimanded in 2010 over complaints about ex parte conversations. Lawyers who attended that event in a packed courthouse said they could not remember another one.