Thursday, Mar. 16, 2023–8:55 a.m.
-John Bailey, Rome News-Tribune-
The Georgia Supreme Court is asking a judicial review panel to correct what they characterize as two “critical legal errors” before making a judgment on the fate of suspended Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Christian Coomer.
Coomer represented Floyd and Bartow counties in the Georgia House of Representatives for eight years, until he was appointed to the Court of Appeals in 2018.
He is accused of over 30 ethics violations stemming from allegations that he defrauded an elderly client while working as a private attorney in Cartersville, prior to his appointment to the appellate court.
Jim Fihart, 80, claimed he loaned $159,000 to Coomer’s holding company in March of 2018 with the promise that the money would be paid back in a year, according to published reports. However, the promissory note stated the debt would be paid off in 30 years, when Fihart would be well into his 100s.
In all, the charges state that Coomer borrowed more than $360,000 from his client with terms favorable to himself, and violated campaign finance rules by transferring money between his campaign and accounts within his law firm.
The Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission panel recommended Coomer be removed from the bench in January after a series of hearings. On Feb. 21 he filed an exception to the recommendation and argued that the JQC director failed to show clear and convincing evidence that he be removed from office.
In that filing, Coomer also raised the question over whether the JQC had jurisdiction over his actions taken before he became a judge.
In a response filed earlier this week, the JQC stated it “has jurisdiction over judges regarding allegations that misconduct occurred before or during service as a judge.”
The Georgia Supreme Court flatly disagreed with that assertion.
“That is wrong,” the opinion stated. “The Code of Judicial Conduct plainly applies to conduct by judges and judicial candidates while they are judges or judicial candidates.”
The second issue brought up by the high court concerns the circumstances in which a judge can be disciplined. The JQC director argued that negligence would warrant discipline against Coomer. The court disagreed.
“Longstanding precedent makes clear that although actions taken in a judicial capacity — acting as a judge, not merely while a judge — can warrant discipline regardless of good faith, actions taken outside a judicial capacity can warrant discipline only when taken in bad faith.
“None of the counts against Judge Coomer allege any actions taken in a judicial capacity, and so, in order to prevail on those counts the (JQC) director would need to prove bad faith by clear and convincing evidence…(Proving) bad faith requires more than ignorance, and because the hearing panel’s report and recommendation was ambiguous as to whether it found that Judge Coomer acted with bad faith, without clearer findings we cannot determine what, if any, discipline is appropriate.”
The high court has directed the JQC Hearing Panel to file a new report and recommendation within 60 days.
You can view the 63-page ruling here.
This story is possible because of a news-sharing agreement with the Rome News-Tribune. More information can be found at northwestgeorgianews.com.