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Judicial turmoil as 2 judges quit during state ethics probe

Fayette County’s legal community was rocked last week by the unexpected resignations of two Superior Court judges, due in large part to sexually charged comments that one uttered to a female attorney during the course of a contentious Peachtree City divorce case.

The week began April 19 with the stunningly unexpected resignation of Superior Court Judge Johnnie L. Caldwell Jr., who later admitted to making “inappropriate comments” to female attorneys.

On Friday, the week ended with the totally unexpected resignation of Chief Superior Court Judge Paschal A. English Jr. Both judges live in Upson County, the southernmost part of the four-county Griffin Judicial Circuit.

The Citizen revealed Friday that English was informed of Caldwell’s sexually-charged remarks about Peachtree City attorney Susan Brown back in fall 2008. English took no action and instead told Brown: “You just have to go talk to Judge Caldwell yourself,” according to Brown in an exclusive interview.

Caldwell resigned under pressure from an investigation by the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission, as Caldwell ultimately signed a handwritten “consent order” that he would never seek or hold judicial office again.

English’s resignation was tendered Friday.

“It is with great remorse that I tender my resignation, but it is time for me and my family to concentrate on a different direction in our lives,” English wrote.

Neither judge in their resignations indicated the real reasons for their abrupt departures.

Prior to English’s resignation Friday, Gov. Sonny Perdue announced that he would appoint a replacement for the two and a half years remaining on Caldwell’s term. Now, in what might be an unprecedented occurrence in Georgia judicial annals, a second judge’s slot in the same circuit has opened up with the rushed resignation of the chief judge.

English is well-known for participating on the fourth season of the TV reality game show “Survivor.” In 2005, English was considered for an appointment to the Georgia Supreme Court, and he was nominated by none other than Caldwell.

The two men have a long history. English actually worked as an assistant for then-District Attorney Caldwell in the late 1980s.

Caldwell became ensnared in what was then known as the Fantasy Fitness scandal in Peachtree City that led to both the city building inspector and the city attorney losing their positions with the city.

Caldwell was passed over when the next judgeship became available, with the governor appointing instead Caldwell’s assistant, English. Caldwell then lost the next DA’s race to Fayette County attorney Fletcher Sams.

Then after beating Sams in a rematch and with a different governor in office, Caldwell was appointed to the next available judge’s slot in the Griffin circuit.

No one then could have foreseen the stunning turn of events that led to Caldwell and English resigning, which began following a March hearing in a contentious divorce case. Brown was representing the wife in that case, Janet Bell Crook, and after the hearing ended she said she visited the new judge on the case, Christopher C. Edwards, to explain a remark she had made regarding unfairness in the case.

After Edwards learned of Brown’s allegations against Caldwell, he called all parties in for a conference to make sure everyone was made aware of the alleged judicial improprieties.

Judge Edwards told the attorneys that he would have to recuse himself from the case unless a waiver was entered from the parties saying they would not appeal any of the previous judges’ rulings on the case, according to a hearing transcript.

The transcript also showed that Edwards was concerned to such a point about the risque comments attributed to Caldwell, that he wondered whether Caldwell’s previous orders in the case were even valid.

“If those orders might have been something that was suggested were improper in some kind of way, then I have absolutely no business enforcing them until it was determined that they were proper orders,” Edwards said according to the transcript.

Edwards took pains to avoid mentioning the detailed comments in court, instead calling a recess in the hearing so Brown could share the information with all attorneys in the case.

In light of the new information about Caldwell, Mrs. Crook was allowed to seek counsel from another attorney on the chance that she wasn’t made fully aware of the extent of Caldwell’s inappropriate remarks. It was that new attorney, Gary S. Freed of Atlanta, who filed the initial motion April 19 asking Edwards to be recused from the case, a full week after Edwards teetered on recusing himself to begin with.

Edwards at the April 12 hearing declined to recuse himself on the basis that it would further slow the trial, as must then be assigned to out-of-circuit judge, according to the transcript of the hearing.

Another factor swaying Edwards was the well-being of the Crook children. Their guardian ad litem, Jack Overman, reminded Edwards that any significant delay in the trial was not in the children’s best interest.

Freed ultimately filed a motion asking Edwards to recuse himself, which Edwards complied with, followed by fellow Superior Court Judges English and Tommy Hankinson.

Aside from the Crook divorce case was the matter of how to handle an alleged judicial impropriety. English took no action on Brown’s complaint, an omission that could be a violation of a state judicial canon that requires judges to “take appropriate action” when they “receive information indicating a substantial likelihood that another judge” committed a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Judges who have “actual knowledge” that another judge has committed a violation of the judicial code which questions the judge’s fitness for office “shall inform the appropriate authority,” the Judicial Conduct Code states.

Judge Edwards noted specifically in the April 2 transcript that not only does he lack “actual knowledge” but he also couldn’t find “a substantial likelihood” of a judicial violation.

Edwards indicated Brown’s explanation of Caldwell’s inappropriate comments “is, in essence, a report.”

Attention now turns to the two openings that the governor will fill. Among those short-listed in the past for judgeships have been current State Court Judge Fletcher Sams and well-connected Peachtree attorney Doug Warner, a senior law partner with state Rep. Matt Ramsey, one of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s House floor leaders.

Attorney John Mrosek of Peachtree City also is actively seeking the appointment. Mrosek ran against Caldwell twice — in 2000 and 2004 — without success. At least one female attorney from Fayette is rumored to be interested.

Current County Commissioner Eric Maxwell has also been mentioned as a possibility for one of the two slots. The attorney who figured prominently in the downfall of the two judges — Susan Brown — previously served as Maxwell’s campaign manager in his successful race for the county commission and the two are described as longtime close friends. Maxwell has qualified this week for reelection to the county commission and has told The Citizen he is not interested in becoming a judge.

The two remaining superior court judges are — in order of their seniority — Christopher Edwards, who lives in Brooks in south Fayette County, and Tommy Hankinson, who lives in Upson County.

As district attorney, Fayette’s Scott Ballard also has to be considered as a possibility, since the Griffin Circuit has a history of DAs being promoted by appointment to a judgeship.

That happened when DA Andrew Whalen left the then-part-time DA position to become the circuit’s only superior court judge in the late 1960s, followed by DA Ben Miller’s ascension in the 1980s. They were followed by Assistant DA Paschal English and DA Johnny Caldwell in the late 1980s and mid-1990s.

The string was broken with DA William McBroom of Griffin. Judges Edwards and Hankinson both faced the voters and won their open seats.

While another appointment from Upson County may be a long-shot this time, Spalding County can’t be discounted as the potential home of at least one of the next two new judges. Spalding — once the largest county in the circuit — hasn’t had a hometown judge since Andrew Whalen retired more than a decade ago. Little Pike County probably won’t be a factor even with two slots open.

— with additional reporting by Cal Beverly, editor.

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