Law360 (November 16, 2020, 6:31 PM EST) – A former Georgia state court judge who resigned after stealing $15,675 from his court’s registry tied to a case he worked on while in private practice can seek and hold judicial office in the future, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled Monday, rejecting a call that he be permanently banned.
Georgia justices held in a per curiam opinion that former Pike County Superior Court Judge Robert M. “Mack” Crawford doesn’t deserve to be permanently barred from holding judicial office after he serves a year-long probation. Crawford was sentenced in February on a criminal theft charge, but he has returned the money he stole in late 2017 and is a first-time offender, the court noted.
According to the opinion, while on the bench, Crawford took money a former client had deposited with the court about 15 years earlier in a foreclosure dispute and that was set to be forfeited to the state.
“Crawford voluntarily removed himself from office by resigning, which was the very sanction sought in the formal complaint and recommended by the [Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission] hearing panel,” the justices said in their opinion. “Crawford’s plea agreement prohibits him from seeking or holding judicial office while he is on probation, and there is no indication in the record or in Crawford’s filings in this court that he plans to seek a judgeship at any point in the future.”
Four of the court’s justices said in a concurring opinion written by Justice Keith R. Blackwell that the Georgia Supreme Court lacks authority under the state’s constitution to permanently ban someone from seeking or holding judicial office, even though the court has done that in the past. Two judges disqualified themselves from the case and one did not participate.
Justice Blackwell said in his concurrence that the court lacks the power to impose a lifetime disqualification from judicial office, although its role under the Georgia constitution is to impose sanctions if necessary, as recommended by the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission. He said the Georgia constitution only allows a judge’s removal or suspension, as well as “other discipline” that is equal to but not harsher than removal or suspension.
“A lifetime disqualification from judicial office strikes me as a greater sanction than removal or suspension from a presently held office,” Justice Blackwell said in his concurring opinion. “Although this court in several cases has imposed a lifetime disqualification from judicial office as a sanction for judicial misconduct, I find no case in which we have considered or decided whether such a sanction is constitutionally authorized.”
Crawford became a superior court judge in Georgia’s Griffin Judicial Circuit in 2010, court records show. The theft involved a case from his years in private practice.
In 2002, Pike County couple Dan Mike Clark and Bobbie Whalen hired Crawford to prevent their property from being foreclosed, according to court records. The couple put $15,675 into the Pike County Superior Court registry to halt the foreclosure pending their case, which effectively ended without resolution in 2004 when Clark died and Whelan moved to Texas, therecord shows.
The commission found in a 2018 investigation of Crawford that he had tried to keep the foreclosure case going without Whelan’s consent, but that it was ultimately dismissed in 2009 by a judge who ordered the registry money returned to Whelan.
Crawford did nothing with the money and made no claim on it until late 2017, when he was informed by the court’s clerk of 30 years that she was forfeiting the money to the state, the commission said in its April 2019 recommendation to the Georgia Supreme Court that Crawford be removed from office.
The commission said Crawford gave the clerk a handwritten note directing that the money be given to him personally, because he had never been paid for his work in the foreclosure case and that Clark had told him he could keep whatever was left in the registry as long as he could stay on the property. The handwritten note was kept from the public record on Crawford’s orders, the commission said. Crawford used the $15,675 check made out to him to pay personal bills, according to the commission.
In early 2018 Crawford borrowed from his son to return the money to the court, the commission said. The commission later told the Georgia Supreme Court that it should permanently ban him from seeking or holding judicial office.
In May 2019, Crawford opposed the commission’s recommendations, and the case before the Georgia Supreme Court was stayed pending a related declaratory action by Crawford over his judgeship. Crawford had sought to enjoin the commission’s action by arguing the names of its members weren’t submitted to the state senate by a statutory deadline, but his lawsuit was unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, Crawford had been suspended as a judge pending his criminal theft and violation of oath charges. He pled guilty in February to one count of misdemeanor theft and was sentenced to 12 months of unsupervised probation on the condition that he resign and not seek or hold judicial office while on probation.
Crawford served as the executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Council from 2007 until he took the bench.
Virgil L. Brown of Virgil L. Brown & Associates, an attorney for Crawford, told Law360 Monday that the former judge did not intend to run for judicial office again, but did not want to be barred permanently from doing so as a matter of principle. Brown said Crawford had retired from his legal career and appeared “much happier”.
Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission Director Charles P. “Chuck” Boring did not immediately comment Monday.
Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton and Justices John J. Ellington, Keith R. Blackwell, Michael P. Boggs, Nels S.D. Peterson and Charles J. Bethel wrote the per curiam opinion. Justice Blackwell wrote the concurring opinion that was joined by Justices Boggs, Peterson and Bethel. Presiding Justice David E. Nahmias and Justice Carla Wong McMillian disqualified themselves from the case and Justice Sarah H. Warren did not participate.
Crawford is represented by Roy E. Barnes, John R. Bartholomew and Kristen E. Tullos of The Barnes Law Group LLC; and Virgil L. Brown of Virgil L. Brown & Associates.
The Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission is represented by its director, Charles P. “Chuck” Boring.
The case is Inquiry Concerning Judge Robert M. Crawford, case number S18Z1636, in the Supreme Court of Georgia.
–Editing by Peter Rozovsky.