published Friday, May 13th, 2011

Harsh verdict for Catoosa judge

Who judges the judges? That’s an important question in a nation where the rule of law prevails and where judges are charged with the equitable administration of those rules. In Georgia, the Judicial Qualifications Commission judges the judges. It investigates complaints of alleged ethical misconduct by judges and then makes recommendations about their fitness to serve. In the case of Catoosa County Magistrate Anthony Peters, the recommendation was harsh. In a report made public Tuesday the commission recommended the he be removed from office and that he be barred forever from seeking a judicial post in the state.

The recommendation is just that. It is not the last word in the matter. The judicial system provides an avenue for appeal. Peters has 30 days to petition the Georgia Supreme Court to modify or reject the commission’s recommendation. It appears that he will. Peters said Tuesday that he hoped the supreme court will see his side of the matter, which involved a series of events that seem to be strange by any definition of normal judicial conduct.

The charges against Peters include that while serving as magistrate that he pointed a gun at himself in the courthouse, made disparaging remarks about a fellow magistrate on a TV program, asked inappropriate questions of defendants, engaged in a row with a co-worker that became so heated that he was handcuffed and taken from the courthouse, used marijuana and violated other judicial standards. The charges — and public concern about Peters’ actions — prompted a rare trial before the commission.

Peters defense was a mix of denial and apology. He said some of the alleged events never happened. He explained that others occurred while he was going through a “rough patch” in his life and while he was taking heavy, perhaps abusive, doses of prescription pain medication. He admitted that he could not remember some of the alleged incidents. He also told the court he was ashamed of his actions, that he’d learned to manage his medications and that he’s now able and ready to return to his judicial duties. The commission believed otherwise.

The commission did drop two of the charges against him, but allowed others to stand. It ruled that his “erratic and irrational behavior eroded confidence in his ability to be a judge” and that he “brought disrepute upon himself and the entire judicial system.” Given that, it is hardly surprising that the commission recommended his removal from office in Catoosa County and the lifetime ban on seeking a judicial office in the state.

That might seem overly harsh, but it is in keeping with another part of the commission’s report. “Judges are to be held to a higher standard than the average citizen and should aspire to conduct themselves with the dignity accorded to their esteemed profession.” That’s a reasonable expectation for someone, like Peters, who has sworn to uphold the law and to administer it fairly. Anything less can undermine public confidence in the judicial system.

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