BY THE NUMBERS
* Complaints against Georgia judges in fiscal year 2010:
4: Investigated but not docketed
* Complaint dispositions:
7: Dismissed after investigation
5: Dismissed after letter of instruction or a personal conference
5: Dismissed after private reprimand
2: Dismissed because judge in question died
4: Judges resigned after complaints were docketed
1: Judge removed by the Georgia Supreme Court
Source: Judicial Qualifications Commission
Complaints against Georgia judges accused of misconduct soared by nearly one-third last year to their highest point ever.
But the state agency that investigates those complaints says the money to fund the investigations is dwindling.
"We are bare bones," said Judicial Qualifications Commission Director Jeff Davis. "We're trying to [investigate complaints] on the same budget and the same resources."
Complaints against judges grew from 376 in 2009 to 489 in the 2010 fiscal year, he said. And officials anticipate having more than 600 this fiscal year, which started in July.
While many complaints are dismissed without an investigation because they're groundless, 33 complaints were investigated in 2010 on allegations including harassment, misuse of power and misconduct off the bench, Davis said. Four judges resigned when the complaints were docketed and one judge was removed by the Georgia Supreme Court.
But the agency is running out of funds to investigate the allegations filed this year.
Throughout the state there are 1,800 judges. The agency's budget -- nearly $252,000 last fiscal year -- is one of the lowest compared with other states, according to the JQC's annual report.
States with a similar number of judges allocate about $700,000 more to their agencies that investigate judges, the report shows.
Davis is asking for an additional $156,000 during next year's legislative session to fund the rest of fiscal 2011 and all of 2012.
At a time when legislators will be looking at how to cut the state's budget, Davis admits the timing isn't ideal. But he said the increase is needed.
"If people don't have confidence that a judge will treat them fairly, we've lost everything," he said.
The JQC conducts its investigations in secret and then makes recommendations to the Georgia Supreme Court.
Local authorities in the past have questioned the process because they can't put judges on administrative leave or even find out if the JQC is looking into a complaint.
In Catoosa County, officials say they can't settle a dispute between Magistrate Anthony Peters and his boss, Chief Magistrate Donald "Sonny" Caldwell, who have been at a standoff for six months.
Peters claims he hasn't been allowed back to work after he was hauled out of the courtroom in handcuffs in June, and Caldwell refers all questions to the county attorney.
County Attorney Chad Young expressed frustration, saying the county's hands were tied unless the judges worked out an agreement to work together or the JQC stepped in.
Davis wouldn't say whether the JQC is investigating the Catoosa situation, but he said the agency is working behind the scenes on cases.
But with a three-person staff, investigations can be time-consuming, he said.
One House resolution related to the JQC has been filed for the 2011 legislative session, but it has nothing to do with the agency's budget. Instead, the measure questions JQC's authority to discipline judges.
Rep. Bobby Franklin, R-Marietta, filed House Resolution 6, which would give the authority to discipline judges or recommend their removal solely to the House. The JQC's only role would be to investigate complaints.
Under current law, only the JQC can discipline a judge but only the House can impeach one, Franklin said.
"Right now it's contradictory," he said
But JQC Commissioner Benjamin Easterlin said the state agency is protected under the state Constitution. The Georgia Supreme Court has authority over all judges in the state and gave the disciplinary authority to the JQC, he said.
"You can't take away a constitutional right by legislation," he said.
Davis argued that the House resolution is also impractical because a judge could only be tried during the legislative session.
"[Legislators] would have to be in a session year round," he said.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/jlukachick.