The Caldwell file: Which judges knew what and when?

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UPDATED April 22, 8:30 p.m.: A long-running and messy Peachtree City divorce case is at the heart of this week’s shocking resignation of Fayette County Superior Court Judge Johnnie Caldwell, The Citizen has learned from court filings and in interviews. All four judges in the Griffin Judicial Circuit have removed themselves from the case during the past eight months because of allegations of judicial impropriety — a case that raises the question of which judges knew what and when, and what they did with what they knew.

Caldwell in a television interview Wednesday admitted he had made improper comments to an undisclosed number of women, including female attorneys. He said his resignation was meant to “atone” for his actions.

The pending case is a divorce action between Gregory Ellis Crook and Janet Bell Crook first filed in Fayette Superior Court April 2, 2008. Since then all four judges have handled the case — first, Johnnie Caldwell, then Chief Judge Paschal English, then Tommy Hankinson, and finally Christopher Edwards. Edwards, English and Hankinson all filed orders of recusal April 19 and 20.

It was this past Monday, April 19, that an investigator from the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission arrived in the circuit to extract a resignation from Caldwell and a handwritten promise from the veteran judge and former district attorney that he would never again seek or hold any judicial office. That promise was delivered to Governor Sonny Perdue Monday, along with Caldwell’s renunciation of any future office. No mention was made of the improprieties to which Caldwell admitted two days later.

The lawyer representing the wife in the case made the allegation of impropriety against Caldwell. Peachtree City attorney Susan M. Brown filed a memo April 19, 2010 in support of her motion to disqualify the fourth judge to hear the case, Christopher Edwards.

“During the pendancy of this action in 2008 and 2009, Judge Caldwell exhibited extra-judicial conduct and made statements toward Susan Brown which are believed improper and which resulted in biased rulings against the defendant or no rulings on motions at all,” according to the memo on file with the Fayette County Superior Court Clerk’s office.

“Susan Brown informed Chief Judge Paschal A. English, Jr., of the improprieties and the prejudice demonstrated,” the memo said. “Judge Caldwell presumably voluntarily recused himself.”

The wording indicates that many months ago, Chief Judge English knew of some allegations against Caldwell, leading to the case being transferred from Caldwell to English.

In fact, a “transfer order” — signed by Caldwell — reassigning the case from Caldwell to English was filed with the court clerk’s office Aug. 12, 2009, eight months before the JQC action resulting in Caldwell’s forced resignation. In this instance, a junior judge signed the order that reassigned a contentious case to the senior judge.

Whether the allegations were reported as soon as English found about them to the JQC, which has the power to discipline or remove judges, is unknown to the public since most of the JQC’s activities are shielded from disclosure by the Georgia Constitution.

English himself, in an interview with The Citizen Tuesday, said he had no knowledge of the reason for the JQC investigator’s visit to the circuit and had no information about anything Caldwell may have done to warrant his resignation. “I can’t comment because I don’t know anything,” Chief Judge English told The Citizen Tuesday. “I’ve heard probably about 50 different rumors.”

“Thereafter, judges Hankinson and English presumably voluntarily recused themselves and the case was assigned to, and is pending before, Judge Edwards, the only remaining superior court judge in the Griffin Circuit,” the April 19 memo continued. “While there are significant allegations of previous impropriety, the most recent proceeding and entry of the April 12 order by Judge Edwards are the basis for this motion.”

The official orders of recusal of both English and Hankinson were filed only this week, on April 20. No record of their recusals prior to this week exists in the court files.

An Edwards’ order on April 2 apparently spurred Mrs. Crook and her attorney Susan Brown to seek Edwards’ recusal. “Judge Edwards informed counsel for both parties that he would not go forward with the trial of the Crook action unless both parties submitted a written waiver that the parties waive any and all issues they may have in relation to any allegations of judicial impropriety regarding Judge Caldwell,” the April 19 memo said. “Judge Edwards said that he has been made aware of ‘improprieties’ and would call the parties into court to discuss the waiver issue.”

Mrs. Crook’s lawyer refused that waiver at the April 12 hearing before Edwards. That led to the following, reproduced exactly as presented in the official court papers:

“Counsel for defendant asked Judge Edwards for time to seek independent legal counsel on the impropriety and waiver issues. At or around that time Judge English entered the court room, asked to speak with Judge Caldwell [sic], and the judges had a meeting in chambers which could be overheard in the courtroom.

“Upon his return, Judge Caldwell’s [sic] demeanor had visibly changed toward defendant’s counsel’s request. Judge Edwards requested that the parties hand write an order and indicated that the parties would have one week to comply with parts of the order,” the April 19 defense memo said.

The order required the defendant to return several thousand dollars to her husband.

[Editor’s note: The memo’s mention of Caldwell as being in the courtroom is unexplained and may be a typographic error. The memo most likely means “Edwards” where it reads “Caldwell.”]

The defense said they agreed to Edwards’ subsequent order under duress, and accused Edwards of bias in the matter. “Judge Edwards’ impartiality might reasonably be questioned based upon the improprieties alleged in and tainting this action before Judges Caldwell and English,” the April 19 memo said.

Two days later, Judge Edwards recused himself on his own motion. “As mentioned in the defendant’s April 19 motion to recuse, this judge promised at hearings of April 2, 2010 and 12, 2010 [sic] to recuse himself if either of two events occurred: first, if either party, after due consideration with advice of counsel, decided to file any motion that raised the issue of alleged misconduct of another judge within the circuit; or, second, if all counsel and parties, after careful study, wished to waive the allegations of another judge’s alleged judicial misconduct as an issue in this divorce case only,” the April 21 order said.

“Without commenting on any other alleged fact or issue in the April 19 motion to recuse, the motion plainly alleges misconduct of another judge within this circuit, so no decision can be made in this case by a judge of this circuit,” Edwards wrote in his order.

In other words, Edwards was telling both parties that an allegation of judicial misconduct made by either party about one judge in the circuit would require Edwards as a matter of judicial ethics to recuse himself from the case. Since he was the last judge standing in the circuit not already recused, that meant the case would have to be postponed and a judge from outside the circuit would have to be brought in to start over.

The recusal removed the fourth and final superior court judge in the circuit from the 2-year-old divorce case. A visiting judge from another circuit now must be assigned to sort out the issues remaining in a messy divorce case that has already cost the career of one veteran superior court judge.

In the meantime, these questions remain:

1. When a junior judge reassigned a case to the chief judge of the circuit, did Chief Judge English inquire or discover why Caldwell was removing himself from the case?

2. If the chief judge of the circuit knew of allegations of impropriety by a fellow judge, what did Judge English do with that knowledge? The transfer of the case took place eight months ago.

3. What did Judge Hankinson know and when?

4. And was it Judge Edwards who blew the whistle to the JQC about the allegations of impropriety by his fellow judge?

We hope to answer those and other questions about this case in the coming days.

— Cal Beverly contributed to this story.

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Below are earlier versions of this story.

UPDATE 6 p.m. Wednesday:

Fayette County Superior Court Judge Johnnie L. Caldwell Jr. admitted on television tonight to unprofessional conduct in making inappropriate comments to female attorneys. He also said it was the reason he agreed to resign from the bench suddenly on Monday, following a request from the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

UPDATE 6 p.m. Wednesday:

Fayette County Superior Court Judge Johnnie L. Caldwell Jr. admitted on television tonight to unprofessional conduct in making inappropriate comments to female attorneys. He also said it was the reason he agreed to resign from the bench suddenly on Monday, following a request from the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

In an interview with WSB Channel 2, Caldwell said he never let a personal relationship with anyone influence a decision, and WSB reporter Mark Winne said the judge was speaking out because rumors of the events leading to his resignation were getting out of hand.

Caldwell said the decision to tender his resignation “was gut-wrenching. But it was part of what I was requested to do.” He also suggested it was a way to “make amends” for his inappropriate language.

In a handwritten note provided to The Citizen by the governor’s office, Caldwell agreed to “never seek or accept judicial office again.” The note was labeled at the top as being a “consent order.” The note was published online at www.atlantaunfiltered.com.

The detail is significant because it could indicate Caldwell’s attempt to stave off a ruling by the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission, which is confirmed to have interviewed several people in Fayette County yesterday regarding a formal complaint lodged against Caldwell.

The JQC will not release any details about the alleged complaint, nor will it confirm an investigation is ongoing. However, the JQC previously has dropped formal investigations in exchange for judges agreeing in writing to never seek judicial office again.

UPDATE 1 p.m. Wednesday:

Monday’s resignation of Fayette County Superior Court Judge Johnnie L. Caldwell Jr. was accompanied by an unusual handwritten note on his office letterhead.

In that note, Caldwell agreed to “never seek or accept judicial office again.” The note was labeled at the top as being a “consent order.” The note was published online at www.atlantaunfiltered.com.

The detail is significant because it could indicate Caldwell’s attempt to stave off a ruling by the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission, which is confirmed to have interviewed several people in Fayette County yesterday regarding a formal complaint lodged against Caldwell.

The JQC will not release any details about the alleged complaint, nor will it confirm an investigation is ongoing. However, the JQC previously has dropped formal investigations in exchange for judges agreeing in writing to never seek judicial office again.

Despite Caldwell’s resignation, the JQC may still seek redress in the future, The Citizen was told today.

Fayette County District Attorney Scott Ballard said a JQC investigator told him the agency does not have an open investigation into any complaint against Caldwell.

Caldwell’s resignation Monday caught everyone by surprise in the Fayette County legal community.

Ballard said a JQC investigator asked him some questions yesterday but the investigator also told him the agency “does not have an open investigation” into the judge

UPDATE 9 a.m. Wednesday: While Monday’s resignation of Fayette County Superior Court Judge Johnnie L. Caldwell Jr. caught everyone by surprise, the Judicial Qualifications Commission does not have an open investigation into the judge, Fayette County District Attorney Scott Ballard said this morning.

Ballard said a JQC investigator asked him some questions yesterday but the investigator also told him the agency “does not have an open investigation” into the judge. The DA said he was unsure what the investigation might have been about.

“I really don’t know what they’re saying Judge Caldwell did,” Ballard said, adding that Caldwell’s resignation was “a great loss” to the legal community at large.

Despite the lack of an open JQC investigation on Caldwell, his resignation does not preclude action being taken by the commission at a later date, The Citizen has learned.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission, among other duties, is charged with investigating formal written complaints of judges who are accused of violating judicial canons or state law. JQC officials refused to comment on the matter when contacted Tuesday afternoon.

Most of the JQC’s work is shrouded in secrecy, but if the agency formally “charges” Caldwell with any violations, that document would be made public, as well as any response Caldwell might have.

The website Barnesville.com reported yesterday that Caldwell resigned under pressure from a state judicial commission investigation. That same report claimed, the veteran judge signed a handwritten pledge to the JQC never to seek elective judicial office again. The Citizen has not been able to independently confirm Caldwell has taken such an action.

Such a document, if it existed, would not be available to the public, according to JQC director Cheryl Fisher Custer.

Meanwhile, a decision has been made for Fayette’s other three judges to absorb Caldwell’s criminal caseload, but a senior judge will be called upon in several weeks to assume his civil caseload, The Citizen has learned. Several courthouse officials said they believe Caldwell’s resignation was based in large part on his father, whose health has declined significantly in recent weeks.

“The handwritten document Caldwell presented the JQC reads in black ink: ‘I hereby agree to never seek or accept judicial office again.’ In blue ink is the notation ‘Accepted’ followed by the signature of Richard Hyde. Richard Hyde is an investigator for the JQC. The document is dated April 19,” said Barnesville.com in a report by publisher Walter Geiger posted Tuesday night. The site is the online version of the Barnesville Herald-Gazette.

According to the JQC website, the commission was formed in 1972 “to conduct investigations and hearings with respect to complaints of ethical misconduct by Georgia judges and is also authorized to issue Advisory Opinions regarding appropriate judicial conduct.” The commission comprises two superior court judges, three lawyers and two at-large private citizens. The JQC has the power, after investigation, to recommend a judicial official be censured, suspended, removed or retired, subject to review by the Ga. Supreme Court.

District Attorney Scott Ballard, who lives in Fayette, confirmed to the Griffin Daily News that a JQC investigator had spoken to him Tuesday concerning Caldwell.

“’I will say that I had a conversation with an investigator from the Judicial Qualifications Commission, but he didn’t reveal any aspect of an investigation involving Judge Caldwell,’ Ballard said. ‘I couldn’t offer him any information about Judge Caldwell because I don’t know of anything wrong he’s done,’” Ballard told the Griffin Daily News.

Ballard otherwise said he knew nothing about what the JQC was looking into. When asked if the investigator inquired about Caldwell’s personal life, Ballard said, “I would rather not say,” the Griffin Daily News reported Tuesday night.

Monday’s resignation by Caldwell has taken the local legal community completely by surprise.

Caldwell is known for his lengthy prison sentences and sometimes brusque courtroom demeanor.

Caldwell, 63, tendered his handwritten resignation to Gov. Sonny Perdue Monday. This summer would have marked his 15th year on the bench.

In his resignation letter, Caldwell said he wished the opportunity to spend time with his grandchildren “and maybe practice law.”

Although Gov. Perdue may elect to appoint someone to fill the remainder of Caldwell’s term, he may also choose to allow the seat to remain vacant until the November election, according to a Perdue spokesman.

Caldwell was district attorney when he was first appointed as superior court judge July 27, 1995 by then-Gov. Zell Miller. Since then he has won reelection to remain in his seat; his campaigns were undoubtedly buttressed by the lengthy prison sentences he issued from felony drug violations to far more serious crimes.

Caldwell faced stiff opposition in his reelection campaigns of 2000 and 2004, both times from attorney John Mrosek of Peachtree City.

In 2008, Caldwell was unopposed for reelection.

While Caldwell’s stiff sentences will be missed by many in the legal community, there are undoubtedly a few defense attorneys who will be happy to see him leave the bench.

Prior to being appointed judge, Caldwell served as district attorney, the circuit’s top prosecutor. While he was defeated in an election for district attorney by now-State Court Judge Fletcher Sams, Caldwell regained the seat four years later by defeating Sams in a rematch.

In his 14 years as district attorney, Caldwell boasted of the highest conviction rate in the state of Georgia.

Before entering the public arena as district attorney, Caldwell was in private practice, representing clients in civil and criminal cases from his home base of Thomaston in Upson County.

Caldwell received his law degree from Mercer University and his undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia, where he also played on the football team.

Remaining judges in the Griffin Judicial Circuit are Chief Judge Paschal English of Thomaston, Judge Tommy Hankinson of Thomaston and Judge Christopher Edwards of Brooks, in Fayette County. The circuit comprises the counties of Upson, Pike, Spalding and Fayette.

Edwards’ seat is the only one up for re-election this November.

Additional reporting on updates by Cal Beverly