After hearing a day’s worth of testimony against him, a south Georgia judge agreed to step down from the bench when his term expires and never run again as part of a settlement agreement.
Grady County State Court Judge J. William Bass Sr. faced 11 counts of ethical misconduct in a case held in Cobb Superior Court on Wednesday.
Jeffrey Davis, director of the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission, said Bass will step down at the end of his term in December 2014 and never again seek re-election.
In addition, Bass agreed to a 60 day suspension without pay, effective immediately. He will also receive a public reprimand from a Superior Court judge in Grady County, which will likely be issued in the next 60 days. And he is on probation for the remainder of his term in office.
The commission’s inquiry began Wednesday morning as Bass’ attorney described him as a part-time judge who runs a small law practice with his son across the street from the Cairo courthouse in rural southwest Georgia, a place surrounded by farms and orchards on the Florida line.
“It is in that setting that Judge Bass sits on the bench,” attorney Christopher Townley of Rossville said. “Judge Bass doesn’t like being a judge. He loves being a judge.”
Serving in the role of prosecutor, Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Brian Rickman spoke of a 2009 trial Bass conducted without the defendant present.
“The judge tried a chair,” Rickman said.
While it’s not uncommon for defendants to miss their court dates, the remedy is to issue a bench warrant, Rickman said, not to try the defendant “in absentia.”
“It is as fundamental to our system that you cannot try a defendant who is not in the courtroom as anything else in criminal law, and the judge convicted a chair,” Rickman said.
Former state Attorney General Michael Bowers, who aided Rickman in the prosecution, asked Bass about prosecuting a chair on Wednesday.
Wasn’t it true, Bowers asked, that when the defendant failed to show, the defense attorney asked Bass for the case to be continued?
Bass said it was true.
“You in effect convicted that chair right there didn’t you?” Bowers said, pointing to a chair in the Cobb courthouse.
“Yes,” Bass said.
“Have you ever convicted a chair before?” Bowers asked.
Bass said it was the first time he had convicted a chair.
“It’s true you should have continued this case, shouldn’t you, in retrospect?” Bowers said. “It’s true, is it not, that it’s unconstitutional for you to have conducted this trial without the defendant present? Isn’t that true?”
Bass answered by saying, “That’s exactly right.”
When Bowers asked why he held the trial without the defendant, Bass blamed it on the solicitor. The solicitor already had all the witnesses present and ready to testify, he said.
“But you’re in control of the courtroom aren’t you?” Bowers asked.
“Absolutely,” Bass said.
Bowers also asked Bass if, during the course of another sentencing, he made a comment about a defendant’s sexuality. When Bass dismissed the allegation as false, Bowers pulled out a tape recording and prepared to play it, prompting Bass to explain that the young man in question had tested positive for cocaine.
“And so I said to him, ‘why in the world would you use cocaine knowing that you’re going to be tested?’ and I believe my exact words to him was, ‘was it to impress some little girl or, heaven forbid, some little boy?’” Bass said.
Bowers asked Bass if he told an attorney not to return to his courtroom because the attorney did not support him during his reelection campaign.
“I did do it,” Bass said, adding that he was just joking, however.
Bass was also asked to explain why he takes Hispanic defendants out of the courtroom to speak with them about their cases without a prosecutor present.
“We don’t separate people in courtrooms in this country,” Rickman said. “We don’t segregate people based upon a characteristic. To take a group of people and separate them from the rest of the people is a violation, and it should not happen, and it was done time and time and time again.”
Bass said he was just trying to make the people who fail to speak English more comfortable.
Legal advice on Facebook?
The charges against Bass did not stop there, but included allegedly firing a probation officer for failing to support him in his election campaign; threatening members of the Georgia State Patrol; allowing his son to fill in for him on the bench; telling a courtroom audience that he hadn’t had sex with his wife in two and a half years, but did not have sex with his secretary; creating an illegal administrative fee that hundreds of criminal defendants had to pay, while at the same time manipulating fees to see that they went to the county government rather than where state law requires them to go, such as the Peace Officer and Prosecutor Training Fund and the Brain and Spinal Injury Trust Fund; trying to convince the local county commission to give him a raise because of the revenue he brings into the county from the fees; and giving out legal advice over his Facebook page to a woman whose brother received a DUI citation.
“Keep in mind judges don’t give legal advice. Especially not on Facebook, for Lord’s sake,” Rickman said.
A first for Cobb
The hearing was conducted by the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission, the body that investigates complaints of ethical misconduct by Georgia judges. The seven-member commission is chaired by Superior Court Judge John Allen of the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit. Marietta attorney Robert Ingram is the vice chair.
Cobb Superior Court Administrator Tom Charron said as far as he can tell, this is the first time Cobb has hosted such a hearing.
“I think they’ve only had like five in about 30 years where it actually goes to a hearing,” Charron said.
Most times the matter is settled in advance, he said, outside of court.
Davis said until Wednesday, Bass has been unwilling to agree to a settlement. But following the day of evidence presented against him, he changed his mind.
Rickman said he and Bowers both objected to the settlement, preferring to see Bass immediately removed from the bench. But the decision was up to the commission.
“A resolution has been reached,” Davis said.