Virgil Brown of Zebulon was still drafting an argument for the Supreme Court of Georgia on Friday when the justices ruled his client’s way.
The court unanimously rejected a request by the Judicial Qualifications Commission to suspend Superior Court Judge Robert “Mack” Crawford of the Griffin Circuit, who is fighting charges brought by the ethics panel.
The decision means that Crawford, who is represented by Brown and former Gov. Roy Barnes, may remain on the job while the JQC processes ethics charges against him involving claims that he improperly took $15,000 from a court registry. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation also is looking into the matter.
Brown said he was working on a response to the JQC’s request that the Supreme Court suspend Crawford when he learned about the high court’s decision on Friday. “I had about eight to 10 reasons why they shouldn’t” suspend him, he said.
In asking for Crawford’s suspension, the JQC on Wednesday said that allowing the judge to continue to preside over cases while he faces both investigations “poses a serious threat of harm to the administration of justice.”
Brown noted that Crawford, at the JQC’s request and to avoid a conflict with the state government, had already recused from any criminal cases while he was being investigated.
“If they wanted him to recuse from everything, they should have asked him,” Brown added, though he said Crawford would have likely said no because he had no conflict in any civil matters.
On Friday, the state Supreme Court issued a one-paragraph order stating, “Having carefully considered the documents submitted with the motion” and the standards of the JQC’s rules, “the Court hereby denies the motion.”
Ben Easterlin, the JQC director, said, “When you file a motion, you hope to win.”
Asked if the fact that Crawford hasn’t been charged criminally could have been a factor in the Supreme Court’s refusal to suspend the judge, Easterlin said that thinking would have been “reasonable,” given that “we have a system of presumed innocence” until charges are proven.
At the heart of both the JQC and GBI investigations is a check for nearly $15,676 in unclaimed funds in the Pike County Superior Court registry. That money was placed in the registry by Crawford, who was then in private practice, on behalf of a client in a property tax dispute.
The case was dismissed in 2009, but the funds remained in the registry until last year, when Crawford directed the court clerk in a handwritten note to write him a check for the unclaimed funds.
Crawford’s counsel have countered that the registry funds were legal fees that were owed to Crawford for 16 years. Crawford claimed he forgot to collect after his client died, and a second client moved out-of-state long before the case was dismissed.
Crawford’s lawyers have also argued that the JQC was unconstitutionally created. That question will be decided by the JQC’s own hearing panel and, if its ruling is appealed, the state Supreme Court.
A JQC hearing on the ethics charges could take place in January.