The Georgia Supreme Court on Wednesday said it cannot decide yet whether to remove a state Court of Appeals judge accused of ethical misconduct and asked a judicial discipline panel to review the case further.
The three-member panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission in January recommended that the state high court permanently remove suspended Court of Appeals Judge Christian Coomer. The panel’s report said he violated ethics rules on how a lawyer should treat a client and improperly used campaign funds for personal expenses.
The Supreme Court found that the panel made “at least two critical legal errors that prevent us from resolving the matter on this record.” For that reason, it decided to send the case back to the panel “to make new findings in the light of the law as it actually exists, and to do so quickly.”
The Supreme Court said the panel made “two critical legal errors.”
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First, it was wrong in its determination that the Judicial Qualifications Commission could pursue discipline for conduct occurring before a person becomes a judge or a judicial candidate, the opinion says.
Second, the high court justices wrote, the panel “failed to understand the circumstances in which the Constitution and our case law permits judicial discipline.” The opinion says that actions taken outside of a judicial capacity “warrant discipline only when taken in bad faith.” None of the counts against Coomer have to do with actions taken in a judicial capacity, and the panel’s report “was ambiguous as to whether it found the Judge Coomer acted with bad faith,” the opinion says.
“Intent was a matter of enormous dispute in this matter, and this Court is not well positioned to resolve the factual questions of intent that are crucial to determining whether discipline is constitutionally permitted,” the opinion says.
For that reason, the high court wrote, it is sending the case back to the panel to resolve several questions. The justices instructed the panel to file a new report with the Supreme Court within 60 days.