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Georgia residents soon will get a peek behind the curtain of one of the most secretive agencies in the state.

The Study Committee on Judicial Qualifications Commission Reform will hold its first hearing of the fall at 11 a.m. Thursday in Atlanta. The committee, which will meet for several weeks, is supposed to look into how Georgia judges get investigated.

Its chairman, state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, believes the JQC needs to divide its responsibilities among more people. He also thinks the agency is too secretive.

JQC meetings are closed to the public. Members of the JQC also legally can't say if a judge is under investigation. In most cases, they can't even say what they uncovered once an investigation is closed — or whether a judge was disciplined.

"Information needs to be known," Willard said. "It's been sort of a closed commission for many years."

He encourages people to follow the hearings to understand how the JQC has functioned and see how it can be improved.

But some critics believe the committee process itself won't be transparent enough, either.

On Nov. 8, voters will be asked whether they want to amend the Georgia Constitution to reform the JQC. The amendment would allow the state House and Senate to appoint four of the JQC's seven board members.

Now, the State Bar of Georgia appoints three members, while the Georgia Supreme Court and the governor each name two.

If the constitutional amendment passes, Willard said, the Legislature next year could make changes so the JQC could be more open. Willard and other study committee members will use information that comes out this fall to shape the JQC's future. Current and former members of the JQC are expected to testify during hearings.

This comes at a time when the agency itself is in turmoil.

Executive Director Ronnie Joe Lane resigned in April 2015. His replacement, Mark Dehler, resigned last month, and the position remains vacant.

The board's chairman, Atlanta attorney Lester Tate, resigned in April. He was replaced by Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver, but she resigned last month when the JQC began investigating her. Weaver had directed a district attorney to investigate a newspaper publisher who tried to get access to Weaver's publicly funded bank account.

Weaver has not been replaced, and the position of JQC in-house investigator also is vacant.

State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, said the JQC needs to be reformed. But he disagrees with the study committee's method. He doesn't want the House and Senate to name JQC members.

"We're going away from a JQC that has traditionally been independent to one that's the lapdog of elected officials," he said. "It will not really perform its function."

McKoon foresees this scenario: The JQC begins to investigate a judge, who will then call his or her state legislators and tell them to pressure their JQC board appointments to drop the case.

He agrees there should be more transparency, but it should be spelled out in the constitutional amendment that people actually vote on. McKoon doesn't see that in the amendment at hand.

Told that the lawmakers may look into this next year, McKoon said people should not hold their breaths.

"Based on my experience in the General Assembly," he said, "I do not trust anyone to honor that commitment."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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