When a Grady County state court judge was contacted by a Facebook friend about her brother’s arrest, the judge was eager to help. He offered legal advice and encouraged her to make sure the case was transferred to him so he could “handle” it, according to the state Judicial Qualifications Commission.
The JQC this month accused Judge J. William Bass Sr.—a Cairo lawyer who has served as president of the Council of State Court Judges of Georgia—of allowing social relationships, including his Facebook friends, to influence his judicial conduct. The JQC also accused Bass of illegally fining criminal defendants to boost his salary, verbally attacking people in his courtroom and retaliating against county contractors who he believed had supported his political opponent.
The JQC said Bass also improperly appointed his son to hear matters whenever the judge was not available; routinely escorted Hispanic defendants outside the courtroom in order to speak privately with them about their cases without a court reporter or a prosecutor present; asked prosecutors to dismiss criminal cases because Bass knew members of the defendants’ families; and threatened members of the Georgia State Patrol who took exception to some of his rulings.
Bass has told the Daily Report he will not discuss the charges. But Bass’ attorney, Christopher Townley, said some of the JQC allegations “are false.” Others, he said, “are out of context; some of them are making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Townley said that Bass “has no intention to resign,” and intends to fight the ethics charges.
Bass, who earned his law degree at Florida State University and was admitted to the State Bar of Georgia in 1985, took office in January 2003. In addition to heading the Council of State Court Judges in 2010, he has taught rookie judges at the Institute of Continuing Judicial Education at the University of Georgia in Athens. He shares a law practice with his son in Cairo and, according to the JQC, has appointed his son to serve as the county state court judge in his absence—another potential ethics violation.
The JQC charges say that Bass’ online conversation with a Facebook friend crossed an ethical line when the judge began discussing the ramifications of a DUI charge that had resulted in the arrest of his Facebook friend’s brother.
Even though the brother already had a lawyer, the judge instructed his friend as to how her brother should present his case to the court and what he should say once his case was called, the charges said.
According to the JQC, the judge also conveyed to his Facebook friend an impression that he was “in a special position to influence the handling of this DUI case.”
He also suggested that her brother “get this matter into State Court” where Bass is the county’s only state court judge, and that he would “handle it from there,” according to the charges.
The DUI case subsequently was moved to Bass’ court where the JQC said the judge reduced the charge to reckless conduct—a non-traffic misdemeanor—and having an open container of alcohol. Bass accepted “no contest” pleas for both charges, levying a $300 fine, including fees, on the first charge and no fine on the second charge. The fines violated state laws establishing higher fines and fees for the offenses, according to the JQC.
But the judge also assessed local administrative costs totaling $900 for both convictions—fees that Bass had no legal authority to levy, according to the JQC. Doing so, according to the JQC, “willfully deprived the state … of receiving surcharges which were required by law to be imposed … and remitted to the state.”
The alleged practice of illegally charging local fees and exacting them from criminal defendants in order to maximize county revenues also violated an ethics canon requiring that judges comply with the law, the JQC said.
The DUI case involving his Facebook friend’s brother was not the first time that Bass assessed what the JQC says are illegal local surcharges against criminal defendants.
According to a letter Bass wrote to county officials in July, the judge claimed his court generates more than $350,000 a year for the county. Because of that, Bass said his part-time judge’s salary should be increased from $40,000 to $60,000 a year, according to the letter, which the JQC attached to its charges.
“Although I don’t get concerned about raising money for the county, I work hard to maximize what gets turned over,” Bass wrote. “The judge must go beyond the call of the job to produce that much for the county.”
“I am your State Court judge,” the letter continued. “I want to be able to continue to make it perform for the county as it should. … Remember, the performance of this court isn’t an accident.”
That alleged solicitation would violate another state ethics canon that bars judges from using their judicial office to advance their private interests, according to the JQC charges. The judge’s letter “gave the appearance that your salary increase was warranted by the amount of funds you caused to be improperly collected by state court,” the charges stated.
The Daily Report was unable to reach either the chairman or the vice chairman of the Grady County Commission for comment. But Bass’ alleged practice of levying unauthorized local fees also could place the county at risk of being sued.
“The practice appears to be patently illegal to assess people an administrative fee not authorized by the state legislature,” said Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights.
The local fees, he said, are similar to illegal local fees that a sheriff in another county once routinely assessed to criminal defendants in order to pay to operate the county jail.
Between 2000 and 2004, the Clinch County sheriff imposed the $18 daily jail fee on pre-trial detainees. The Southern Center for Human Rights sued the county on behalf of a group of former inmates, eventually settling the case for $27,000 for a class of former jail inmates.
Townley, the judge’s lawyer, acknowledged that Bass “was imposing costs.” But, he said, “We have a disagreement on whether or not those were unlawful costs.” State court rules, he suggested, allow state courts to “rule themselves,” including the imposition of local fees.
“If they feel like he’s legally wrong, that’s what the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court is for,” Townley added.
Bass’ problems extend beyond the unauthorized fee question. The JQC has also charged Bass with ethics violations associated with his alleged open hostility to people who supported Whigham attorney Joshua Bell, his opponent in the 2010 election, which Bass won by just 30 votes.
According to the JQC, Bass was “verbally hostile” and “belligerent” to people who he believed had supported his opponent, including court employees and lawyers who appeared before him on behalf of clients,
In one case, Bass allegedly chastised a lawyer in open court who had contributed to Bass’ opponent, warning him loudly, “I know you gave money to my opponent. Don’t come back,” the JQC charges stated.
The JQC also accused Bass of improperly using his judicial position in an effort to persuade the county sheriff to stop doing business with a local bonding company because Bass believed the company owner was not supporting his re-election campaign.
Bass also made “numerous threatening and confrontational statements” to the owners and other employees of the private probation services company under contract to the state court because they would not publicly support his campaign, the JQC stated. And, within days of his 2010 re-election, Bass retaliated against the company, according to the JQC, by terminating its contract with the state court.
Townley said that allegations that Bass retaliated against a county bondsman and the state court’s probation contractor are false. He also denied that Bass had verbally attacked his opponent’s supporters, saying that any comments Bass may have made were taken out of context.
“He joked with an attorney at one point about supporting his opponent,” Townley said. “But it was a joke. It wasn’t retaliatory.”