Judge Robert “Mack” Crawford, Superior Court, Pike County. At his JQC hearing on Monday Feb. 25, 2019. (Photo: John Disney/ ALM)

A judge has denied a petition to strip members of the state judicial watchdog agency of their authority to investigate a complaint against a suspended judge facing ethics charges.

Cobb County Superior Court Judge Ann Harris’ order affirming the legality of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission’s 10 appointees clears the way for the continuation of Griffin Circuit Superior Court Judge Robert M. “Mack” Crawford’s ethics hearing Friday.

Crawford is scheduled to present his defense against charges that he violating the state Code of Judicial Ethics by improperly directing a court clerk to pay him $15,675 from the court registry  shortly before Christmas in 2017. Crawford then deposited the majority of the money—which had sat unclaimed in the court registry since 2002—in his personal bank account and pocketed the rest, according to the pending charges.

The JQC suspended Crawford after he was indicted last year on charges of theft and violating his oath of office, both felonies. Crawford’s arraignment is set for April 4.

Crawford has claimed he was owed the money from a previous case he handled as an attorney.

The JQC judicial panel handling the hearing is comprised of Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Robert McBurney, Atlanta attorney Jamala McFadden of Atlanta’s McFadden Davis and Cobb County Police Chief Michael Register.

Harris handed down her order Thursday following a hearing earlier this week on Crawford’s quo warranto petition. A quo warranto petition allows a petitioner to challenge another’s right to hold public office.

Crawford’s attorney, former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes,  filed the petition the day Crawford’s ethics hearing opened on Feb. 25 in an unsuccessful effort to stop it.

Barnes contended at that hearing that state law governing JQC operations requires that commission appointees be submitted to the Georgia Senate for approval no later than the third Monday in January in order for them to be eligible for Senate confirmation. Appointees named to the JQC when the General Assembly is not in session may serve until their names are submitted to the Senate.

The current JQC members were appointed in 2017. Barnes contended that none of those appointments were submitted to the Senate until Jan. 18, 2018—three days after the legal deadline. Barnes backed up his claim with the Senate Journal, citing the Jan. 18 date. The state Constitution has established the journal as “the sole, official record” of Senate proceedings, Barnes said.

Barnes said that, while he respects Harris’ order, “The plain language of the JQC law and the Constitution requires a different result.” JQC Executive Director Ben Easterlin, who faced off against Barnes at the March 18 hearing, declined to comment.

In her order, Harris cited testimony by two witnesses at the hearing. Irene Munn, who was former Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s legislative counsel when the appointments were presented to the Senate in January 2018—testified that she received the appointment letters on Cagle’s behalf prior to Jan. 15 and gave them to Senate Secretary David Cook by Friday Jan. 12, according to the judge’s order. As lieutenant governor, Cagle also was president of the Senate.

Cook testified that he received and time-stamped each appointment on Jan. 12, 2018, Harris’ order said.  Cook also said he placed the appointment letters on the desk of every state senator on Jan. 18, 2018, according to the judge.

Harris’ order also noted that Jan. 15, 2018, was the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and the Senate was not in session. The Senate’s first legislative day after Jan. 12 was Jan. 18, 2018.

Both witnesses testified they were keenly cognizant of the deadline, as it was the first time that the Senate had been given legal responsibility for appointments other than those made by the governor.

“The court believes the use of the term ‘the Senate’ includes the body of that chamber of the General Assembly, including the Senate President and Secretary of the Senate acting as its officers,” Harris held.

In addition, she said, “There exists a presumption of regularity that requires the court to presume that public officers have properly discharged their official duties.” Crawford’s “reliance on the Senate Journal to dissuade the court that the JQC appointees’ names were properly submitted is unpersuasive,” she concluded.