published Saturday, December 28th, 2013

Pam's Points: Where's the judgment?

A judge in Chattooga County broke the law and received no discipline.

The Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission in its ruling wrote that State Court Judge Sam Finster's practice of levying court costs against defendants whose cases were dismissed may have been well-intentioned but was nonetheless illegal.

In the same breath, however, the judicial commission's ruling states the importance "to ensure that such confidence in the Chattooga County State Court continues."

There seems to be a disconnect here. What the judge did was illegal, but he won't be disciplined. Meanwhile, we real people are still expected to have confidence in the justice system.

Commissioner Jeff Davis praised Finster's "willingness to correct these oversights" and said the commission would not discipline the judge because he showed he wanted to correct his past mistakes. In early December (about the same time the commission's ruling was made) Chattooga County State Court Clerk Sam Cordle sent a letter from Finster to defendants offering them their money back. Those "oversights" (Finster said he didn't know charging court costs to unconvicted defendants was illegal until Times Free Press reporter Tyler Jett informed him) cost 152 defendants $36,504 for cases that were not prosecuted, according to court records.

Using the commission's reasoning, the credit card fraudster who hacked Target during the holiday buying season should make an offer of restitution. Then he, too, could not be disciplined, right?

Finster in essence put the blame on alleged crime victims. He said a victim would call police, who then would make an arrest. Months later, the victim would decline to help the prosecution. Finster argued that the investigation cost taxpayers, so charging court costs was a way to get some of that money back.

Wait. I thought judges were supposed to know the law, not make it up. And didn't someone once say two wrongs don't make a right? I guess Finster thought it was OK that innocent folks should have to pay for the privilege of being investigated. And the commission apparently still thinks it's OK that Finster won't have to pay for -- at best -- not knowing how to do his job.

The news from 1776

Imagine Christmas Day 237 years ago. America was brand new and not yet really legitimized, as George Washington was just embarking on the 10 days that would decide the fledgling nation's baptism by artillery fire as the patriots finally began to see decisive victories.

Christmas 1776 was the day Washington and about 2,400 men boarded small boats -- about 30 per boat -- to cross the flooded and icy Delaware River in the darkness of night then marched for miles in a snow storm to surprise the Hessian and British soldiers encamped to protect Trenton, N.J.

It was the beginning of what has since been called the 10 days that changed the world. And it should be remembered every Christmas Day, though it rarely is -- especially in the South.

On that frigid morning, as Washington realized that the hours lost to fighting the weather would rob him of the pre-dawn attack surprise he had anticipated, he almost turned back but decided to press on.

We could think it another Christmas miracle, but that would belittle the incredible determination and bravery of Washington and his men.

Jobless lifelines

Congress stole Christmas from 1.3 million out-of-work Americans today. Over the course of 2014, more will lose the help, as many as 4.9 million.

In normal times, the states and federal government work together to fund up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits under the unemployment insurance program, which dates to 1935 and provides laid-off workers with a fraction of their old salary while they search for a new job. In 2008, under George W. Bush, congress expanded this program under the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program to deal with the recession. That extension is what was cut today.

In Tennessee's workforce of 3 million people, some 18,405 folks -- less than 1 percent -- were on the extended benefits list. Today, they are jobless and without aid. In Alabama's 2.1 million workforce, 12,325 will lose the help. Georgia will be hit hardest: 66,729 people in the Peach State's 4.7 million workforce will be jobless and without aid.

Don't forget that when we're working our employers are paying a flat unemployment tax on each employee of about $42 a year ($84 in Georgia because that state years ago opted out of the forward-funding formula and adopted a plan to keep state unemployment insurance costs artificially low, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities). Perhaps if Congress can regain its wits and thwart the tea party, this is a wrong that can be righted in the new year.

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schizka said...

Judge Sam Finster's practice of levying court costs against defendants whose cases were dismissed may have been well-intentioned but was nonetheless illegal.

And you'd think a judge of all people would know this, right?

December 29, 2013 at 5:17 p.m.
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