MARIETTA, Ga. (CN) – A state judge on Wednesday accepted a suspension and reprimand from Georgia’s Judicial Qualifying Commission that allows him to serve out his term – but no more.
After one day of testimony, Grady County State Judge William Bass Sr. accepted a 60-day suspension without pay and agreed not to seek office again after his term ends. He must accept a public reprimand and will remain on probation throughout his term.
Bass faced an 11-count complaint in Cobb County Superior Court, accusing him of violating judicial canons.
Former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers, JQC Director Jeff Davis and District Attorney Brian Rickman recapped the charges on the first day of what was scheduled as a three-day hearing.
“You will hear evidence in this case, not just of one violation, not just a couple of violations, but a pattern of violations by Judge Bass,” Rickman in opening arguments.
“The only way to describe the conduct is bizarre, shocking, and inappropriate.”
Rickman summed up one of the charges: “On October 29, 2009, Judge Bass presided over a trial and the only person that was not there was the defendant,” Rickman said.
“In the trial transcripts of the Rene Billot trial, you will hear from witnesses that the judge tried and convicted a chair.
“The judge convicted a chair!”
According to the court transcript of State vs. Billot, Bass proceeded with an obstruction stemming from a traffic violation, though Billot was not present in the courtroom and his attorney asked for a continuance. Solicitor Kevin Cauley objected and asked Judge Bass to proceed with trial.
Bass obliged, according to the transcript:
“THE COURT: All right. Then I think we’ll just continue with the trial rather than continue the case.
“MR. CAULEY: OK.
“THE COURT: That chair right there by Ms. Brice [Billot’s attorney] is Rene Billot. I’ll hang a name on it, if y’all would like me to. Call your first witness.”
When Bass took the stand Wednesday as the first witness, attorney Bowers asked him to read from the transcript.
“You convicted that chair right there, didn’t you?,” Bowers asked.
“Yes,” answered Bass.
“Have you ever convicted a chair before?” Bowers asked.
“Isn’t it unconstitutional to try a chair?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Bass agreed. “On reflection I should have continued the case; that’s right.”
Bass also was accused of abusing his office to seek political vendettas against people who did not supports him in the 2010 elections; of making inappropriate, sexual comments in court; of sequestering Hispanic defendants away from the courtroom; and of refusing to collect or diverting state surcharges to his county.
“One of the biggest issues about this case for Judge Bass was who was supporting him and who was supporting Judge Joshua Bell [Bass’ opponent in the 2010 election], to the point of paranoia,” Rickman said.
Rockman and Bowers said the paranoia led Bass to retaliate against his political opponents, including an attorney and a longtime probation officer.
Maggie Crutchfield – the former probation officer in Judge Bass’s courtroom, and owner of Red Hills Community Probation – testified that Bass terminated her contract to provide probation services, because she is a friend of Municipal Court Judge Josh Bell – who also works as a private attorney.
Crutchfield filed a formal complaint with the JQC, saying she heard inappropriate sexual comments by Bass about sex with his wife; that she saw him sequester Hispanic defendants and talk about their cases outside the courtroom; and that she endured his criticism about her friendship with Judge Bell.
“Was there ever a time that Judge Bass came to you and asked you to support his campaign?” the prosecution asked.
‘Yes, sir, he would say I appreciate your support, or he would ask for it, but then say, ‘But I know Josh is your buddy.’ He made snide remarks about my relationship with the Bell family,” Crutchfield said.
“He made very derogatory comments about Bell, then he’d say, ‘I am sorry … that’s your buddy.'”
A week after Bass was re-elected, Crutchfield says, Bass fired her by letter.
“I called him on the phone and said, ‘I got this letter, is this personal?’ and he said, ‘You did not campaign for me.’ And I said, ‘Judge Bass this is personal?'” Crutchfield testified.
Attorney Rob McLendon said he too felt the wrath of Bass’s contempt for Judge Bell, in Bass’s courtroom.
“The defendant in the civil case was pro se, and as we started the hearing, the judge looked at the pro se client and said, ‘You ought to know your attorney contributed to my opponent’s campaign,'” McLendon said.
“I told him that the defendant was not my client, and after some more conversation, we got back around to the contribution matter. He looked at me and said, ‘Don’t come back to this court,’ sternly, then he smiled. I could not tell if he was joking or not, but it was uncomfortable to me.
“I found the remark inappropriate,” McLendon said.
Asked about his comments to McLendon, Bass said: “I regrettably talked to Rob McLendon, saying that he made a contribution to my opponent, and I am a very stern joker, so I said, ‘Rob? Just don’t bother to come back.’
“I wasn’t trying to hurt Rob’s feelings and I told him to come back anytime.”
Bass also was accused of improperly ordering defendants to pay their fines as “administrative costs,” to send the money to Grady County, instead of funds mandated by the Legislature, including funds for indigent defendants, police officers and crime victims.
“He violated numerous statutes by preventing mandatory surcharges from being collected,” Rickman said.
“Georgia has a statute about this and when defendant doesn’t pay all of the fines, then who determines what or who gets paid first? His administrative costs became restitution, so the county got the money first, before anyone else.
“Why does it matter?” Rickman asked. “By not following the law, numerous state funds were shortchanged, by as much as 50 percent.”
Bass’s attorney Christopher Townley touted his client’s small-town values, sensitivity to the people of Grady County and his love for his job as reasons to keep him in his position.
Townley asked the JQC’s presiding judge that the whole commission be subject to voir dire, to determine if anyone on the commission had a previous relationship with Joshua Bell.
“To place this case in context, you have to focus on what you already know,” Townley said. “Grady County is a very small county. It’s a rural town, a nice little town. It’s about farms and pecan orchards and it’s in that setting that Judge Bass sits on the bench, handling misdemeanors with people who don’t have a whole lot of knowledge as it relates to the judicial process,” Townley said in his opening argument.
“Judge Bass doesn’t like being a judge; he loves being a judge. Some people enjoy being on the bench because of the problems. Some judges love the law, love to study and think about it. Some love the prestige of the position. Bill Bass loves being a judge because of how it makes him feel when he helps people.”
He continued: “The evidence will show you that Grady County and its citizens will be better served by Bill Bass being Judge Bass. Don’t remove someone who tries to help. Someone who cares about the people should not be removed. Judge Bass has learned some things from this process, and will learn some more, but he is a good man.”
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