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ATLANTA — A board member for Georgia's judicial watchdog group leaned into a microphone Thursday morning as he reflected on his decade with the agency.

"How do you describe the current state of the (Judicial Qualifications Commission)?" State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, asked.

"It's an embarrassment," Richard Hyde said.

"Why?" Willard asked.

Where to start? Hyde told the board the agency hasn't had a director since mid-August. It doesn't have an interim director, either. It doesn't have a full-time investigator. Its board chair resigned last month. The board chair before her resigned in April.

"We're impotent," Hyde said. "We've had a lack of leadership for various reasons. We're backlogged."

Yet, as Hyde testified before a Georgia House Study Committee on JQC Reform, he said some potential changes might not be helpful, either. He said the key is to attract new talent — a new director and a new investigator, in particular. But that can't happen, he added, what with all this commotion.

The JQC is the state agency charged with investigating misconduct by Georgia judges. Some of its cases are about ethics; others are about crimes. But some members of the Georgia legislature want to change the JQC's structure, saying the board has acted too harshly against certain judges.

The JQC board consists of seven members, including three appointed by the State Bar. Earlier this year, the legislature passed a bill that would strip those three appointments from the bar — and give them to the legislature. To make it official, Georgia residents will vote on a constitutional amendment this November.

Willard, the chairman of the study committee investigating the JQC, said state lawmakers might change other elements of the JQC after the November election. He isn't sure what those would be yet, which is part of the reason why the committee is holding hearings.

On Thursday, Hyde urged the committee to keep one particular element of the JQC intact: anonymous complaints. Hyde, who spent about 10 years as a contracted investigator for the agency, said the group used to require signed, written complaints. But the board did away with that, figuring more useful tips would flood in if informants didn't have to put their names on them.

That proved true, Hyde said. Specifically, judges began submit complaints about other judges. That made sense: These were the people who knew the most about working on the bench.

Hyde also listed cases that he has been investigating, though he left specific names out of the testimony because the Georgia Constitution keeps JQC investigations shrouded in secrecy — even after those investigations close.

With the help of some tips, he said, the group disciplined a judge who snorted cocaine and slept with a prostitute, a judge who pointed a gun from the bench toward the audience and a judge who wrote racist Post-It notes to a clerk.

"We're not the commission we used to be," Hyde said. "I'm proud of that."

But this year has been marked by turmoil, he added. Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Hyde to be a board member at the end of last year, but nobody has replaced Hyde as the investigator. He said the current chair, Fulton County State Court Judge Patsy Porter, is withholding judicial complaints from the rest of the board.

Porter did not respond to a call or an email seeking comment.

On Thursday, Hyde suggested to the state lawmakers that the JQC should have a separate board that hears accusations against judges, while the regular board investigates those accusations. That structure would create a separation of powers, leading to more objective decisions. He also said state lawmakers should receive reports when board members are skipping meetings.

But for now, he said, he has advised people not to apply for the JQC director job, not until people know for sure how the commission will change.

"There's no one I dislike enough to suggest that they come work for me right now," he said.

Willard said Edward Tolley, an Athens, Ga., lawyer and JQC board member, will testify before the committee next week. He said invitations to the other board members have either been ignored or declined because of illnesses or a scheduling conflict.

"It's not an inquisition," Willard said. "This is trying to get information to better understand what's happening with the commission so that we, the representatives of the public, have better insight about [the JQC]. Everything done by the commission is pretty much closed meeting, closed information."

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

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