Muscogee County Superior Court Judge Robert Johnston III says he met the investigator for the Judicial Qualifications Commission for the first time on Tuesday.
It was before noon, Johnston said, and he had just finished a court hearing and was leaving the Government Center. When he stepped off the elevator, he was approached by Richard Hyde, an investigator for the state watchdog agency that has jurisdiction over judges.
“That is kind of like the IRS tapping you on the shoulder,” said Johnston, who has spent the last 27 years as a State or Superior Court judge. “I said, ‘Where do you want to talk?’”
About two hours later, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue’s office received a fax from Columbus. It was Johnston’s signed letter of resignation.
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Hyde later told Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr’s office that he would no longer need public information he had requested from the sheriff, including daily logs for deputies dating back 10 years and information about the swipe cards used by public employees when they enter and exit Government Center offices.
“From some of the stuff he was asking, I knew if there was any truth to it, Judge Johnston had some issues,” Darr said Friday.
In a 15-minute phone interview on Friday, Johnston told the Ledger-Enquirer that he was not forced out of office and that he resigned for health reasons. His legs, he said, had “gone to hell in a hand basket.”
No reasons given
Johnston apparently is the second Georgia Superior Court judge to step down this year after receiving scrutiny from the JQC. Mountain Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Ernest H. “Bucky” Woods III resigned last month after 17 years on the bench.
Woods’ resignation came after e-mails surfaced that showed a personal relationship was developing between the judge and a woman who was a defendant in his drug court, according to the Fulton Daily Report, an Atlanta-based newspaper that covers the state judicial system.
“I call it a retirement,” Woods told the Daily Report. “I just got tired of living under a microscope.”
While charged with investigating judicial misconduct, the Judicial Qualifications Commission can also look into a judge’s physical or mental fitness to serve.
An investigation can be launched in two ways: Someone can file a complaint with the seven-person commission or it can initiate its own investigation if it learns of potential issues with a judge.
The state agency is not talking about the reasons Hyde spent two days in Columbus, and its work is not subject to Georgia’s Open Records Act. The JQC process only becomes public if formal charges are filed and a trial is held.
No charges have been filed against Johnston.
“I can confirm that Judge Johnston has submitted his resignation to the governor, effective March 15, and we are in receipt of it,” said JQC Executive Director Cheryl Custer, who declined to answer any additional questions.
Muscogee County Superior Court Chief Judge John Allen is vice chairman of the commission and also declined to discuss the Johnston matter. “The practice of the JQC is if there is anything going on in your circuit, you recuse yourself,” said Allen, who was appointed to the commission by the state Supreme Court and is halfway through his four-year term.
Asked if he was forced out, Johnston said, “No.”
“I guess I would have had an opportunity to go before the Supreme Court and get a trial,” he added.
Monday and Tuesday
Before Hyde met with Johnston, the investigator talked with a number of members of the Columbus judicial and law enforcement community on Monday and Tuesday.
Darr said he met with Hyde for more than an hour Tuesday morning, and that the investigator “cut to the chase pretty quick.”
Hyde asked about several incidents prior to Darr’s election in November 2008 and one recent incident, the sheriff said, declining to discuss the nature of those incidents.
State Court Judge Andy Prather, who has been on the bench for 16 years, said Hyde asked him “a considerable” number of questions on Monday afternoon.
“He asked about Bobby’s health and his ability to carry out his job,” said Prather, who was hired by Johnston, then the State Court solicitor, as an assistant prosecutor in 1979.
Johnston has suffered from severe health problems in recent years and walks with a cane because of leg, hip and foot ailments.
Hyde also met with Municipal Court Judge Stephen Hyles, who has handled a number of proceedings for Johnston as the judge’s health issues have worsened.
“We talked about the frequency in which I would fill in for Superior Court judges,” Hyles said.
Columbus City Attorney Clifton Fay also confirmed that he met with Hyde, but would not discuss what they talked about.
The complete list of those who talked to Hyde is not known.
Before noon on Tuesday
When he stepped off the elevator on Tuesday, Johnston said, he was on his way to get a foot brace he had been fitted for by the Mayo Clinic.
“This has been going on for three years and these legs have gone to hell in a hand basket,” Johnston said. “Man, I can’t even walk without using a cane.”
That’s when he was approached by Hyde, a former Atlanta Police detective and current law firm chief investigator who works part-time for the JQC.
“The first time I had ever laid eyes on him,” Johnston said.
They went to the Government Center parking garage, where they sat inside the judge’s sedan for 35 minutes, Johnston said.
The 62-year-old judge said the “thrust” of his conversation with Hyde was about his failing health.
“I haven’t been able to tote my load,” Johnston said.
Then the two men re-entered the building and took the private prisoner elevator to Johnston’s 11th floor chambers. There, the judge took a pen and wrote a one-sentence letter of resignation.
“Dear Governor,” the letter began.
“I hereby resign effective March 15, 2010 as Judge of Superior Court Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit due to health reasons.”
Then he signed his name.
Johnston said he volunteered to resign and was not asked to by Hyde.
“That came from me,” Johnston said. “... I don’t think I was under investigation.”
At 1:53 p.m., according to documents obtained under the Georgia Open Records Act, the letter was faxed from a downtown hotel to the governor, who had to accept it for it to become official.
On Friday, Johnston said he held no grudges against the JQC or Hyde.
“He’s a decent guy,” Johnston said of the investigator, adding that he has continued to talk to him since the resignation.
“Yeah, we have talked two or three times,” Johnston said. “He’s a reasonable individual.”