The Georgia Supreme Court this week issued a formal reprimand for a judge being investigated after an incident involving a cell phone, a warning and a bail bondsman. The Supreme Court’s decision provided for a harsher sentence than that recommended by the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC).
Judge Eric Norris has served on the bench in some capacity for over eighteen years. He served as Chief Magistrate Judge for Oconee County from 2004 to 2016, at which time he was appointed to the Superior Court Chamber by then-Governor Nathan Deal. In May 2020, he was appointed Chief Superior Court Judge for the Circuit – Clarke and Oconee County. On his website, Norris says he has a track record of “protecting the rights of all citizens, regardless of their status.”
The JQC received a complaint against Superior Court Justice of the Western Judicial Circuit Eric Norris for violating Georgia’s code of conduct when he “co-organized a meeting in his chambers [Liberty Bondsman Nathan] Owens and used this meeting to berate and criticize Mr. Owens for his practice [his] constitutional right to freedom of expression when sharing an article and its comment on one’s personal Facebook page…”
In particular, the Athens Banner-Herald published an article about a defendant in a rape case failing to appear in court, leading to an arrest warrant. Norris was the presiding judge in the case and released the defendant on his own accord after a mistrial.
In July 2019, bail bondsman Nathan Owens posted his disagreement with the judge’s decision on social media, prompting others to come out with “erroneous and critical comments” about Norris. This led to a meeting with the bail bondsman and Norris at Norris’s quarters. When Owens arrived, the judge ordered a deputy to confiscate Owens’ cellphone and then reprimanded the serf in his chambers for his social media posting.
Owens said in his complaint to the JQC that he did not think he could go free and asked that an attorney be present. Norris told him, “No, you’re going to sit down and hear what I have to say.”
Judge Norris also went on to demean Owens by saying:
- Compare Owens’ educational and professional background to his own unflatteringly and realize that all Owens had done was go to high school and then work.
- He outlined Judge Norris’ years in the military, his educational background, … his appointment to the judge’s seat by Gov. Deal ….
- He stated that “although he didn’t have to ask,” he assumed Owens had never served his country honorably;
- He stated that because Owens did not have “good moral character,” he did not meet the requirements of a professional serf under Georgia law
- He mentioned that he knew Owen’s business was failing
Norris also made comments about the social media post itself, including referencing a woman who responded to Owens’ post, saying, “Oh, I just love her. She came to me and asked for a TPO against her roommate, which I refused.”
He then accused Owens of delaying his trial by thirty minutes.
Recommendations of the Judicial Qualifications Commission
Following an investigation and recommendation by the JQC Board of Inquiry, the Director of the JQC brought formal charges against Norris for his conduct toward Owens.
In early 2020, the JQC Hearing Panel held a hearing at which Norris and JQC Director Chuck Boring proposed that the charges be settled amicably, which has been submitted to the Georgia Supreme Court for review. The Georgia Supreme Court rejected the consent agreement, leading to Boring filing a formal indictment against Norris in March 2021.
Norris was charged with violating the following:
- Rule 1.2(A), which requires that “judges shall at all times act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary”.
- Rule 2.8(B), which requires “judges to be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants, jury, witnesses, counsel and others with whom they deal in their official capacity…”
Director Boring said the “alleged violations encourage discipline because they amount to “willful misconduct in office” and/or interfere with the administration of justice, which brings the Office of Justice into disrepute.”
In his hearing, Judge Norris testified that “Owens should have been more cautious because, as a professional serf, he knows more about the criminal justice system and basic court records than a layperson.” He then acknowledged that some of the details that Owens brought into the public debate should include were not available to the public at the time of Owen’s posting.
In particular, the panel recommended that Norris publicly apologize for his breach of Rules 1.2(A) and 2.8(B). A dissenting recommendation from JQC member Jamala McFadden called for a court censure along with a public apology.
The story continues below.
see the Members of the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission can be found here.
The Supreme Court orders a harsher punishment than the JQC recommendation
The Georgia Supreme Court disagreed that a public apology or censure was an appropriate sanction and ordered that Judge Norris be publicly reprimanded in open court.
The complete report is available under.