Officers of the Court or Good ol’ Boys in Robes?

Officers of the Court or Good ol’ Boys in Robes?

I sometimes wonder if Augusta area police investigators have the same exact conversations with their confidential informants as I have with many of mine:

Okay… I can tell you about this, but if it comes out I am the one who said it, I am THROUGH (or RUINED or KILLED)…”

In the wake of serious allegations concerning the behavior of Augusta judicial circuit family court guardian-ad-litem Doug Nelson, I had three very well-known local attorneys contact me, with various versions of the following story, all independent of each other:

“I knew about these kinds of problems with Doug for years. He had a horrible reputation with the female clients associated with many of his cases… he was notorious.”

Nelson has been accused of sexual harassment by a growing list of his former clients, with one even providing Fox 54 TV reporter Nick Lulli with visual evidence of highly inappropriate text conversations. When confronted by Columbia County Chief Magistrate Jason Troiano, who supervised him in his capacity as an appointed associate magistrate court judge, at first Nelson denied the charges and maintained his innocence. Within a few hours he had changed his tune, and rather than be subjected to an official investigation into his behavior, he decided to resign his position and withdraw without public comment.

To be clear, while Nelson’s work as a family court guardian-ad-litem had nothing to do with his position in magistrate court, and no allegations concerning his work as a magistrate judge have been made, the accusations bring his character, professionalism and mental health into question, and Troiano was right to put pressure on him to either defend himself to the Judicial Qualifications Commission, or get the hell out of Dodge.

It seems Mr. Nelson has chosen the latter. Good for him. For a change.

Guardian-ad-litems are the appointed investigators who are supposed to figure out who is telling the truth in child custody cases where one parent is accusing the other of dangerous or inadequate parenting habits. In other words, in divorce cases they are supposed to figure out who gets the kid, and under what terms, if any, the other parent has visitation or access. The position is incredibly powerful given the stakes, and the use of these “citizen investigators” has come under scrutiny in recent years after any number of bizarre and indefensible recommendations. These odd recommendations often come with incomplete investigations, poor logic and a hefty bill for services rendered (paid directly to the G-A-Ds, no less). As far as I can tell, the positions come with minimal formal training and virtually no field supervision of any kind. The G-A-D answers directly to the judge who has appointed him, and if either of the parties involved does not agree with the findings as they are presented, they can go jump in the lake.

Sounds pretty scary, if you ask me. While the use of these appointees and their individual integrity, which I am told runs the gamut from good to horrific, should be of concern to any fair-minded citizen, I have a far more specific problems about the way Nelson’s case has been handled. Sadly, it is a “cover our ass” scenario I have seen play out in a variety of ways in the Augusta judicial circuit over many years.

So a bunch of lawyers heard Nelson was harassing women while serving as an umpire in their sensitive family court issues, and how many did anything serious about it? None that I can find. The ones who confessed this to me also confessed that, beyond a casual mention, “taking on” a man who was believed to be “protected” by several superior court judges in the area was professional suicide. Even Superior Court Judges Danny Craig and Wade Padgett knew about the improper text messages Nelson had exchanged with the lady who eventually went to Nick Lulli, ironically, because Nelson himself had to get a restraining order to get the woman to stop contacting HIM.

Judge Craig himself reportedly stopped using Nelson as a G-A-D, but to my knowledge, never took a public stand questioning his professionalism or fitness to serve under other judges. He should have. As an officer of the court, he and every other judge, and attorney for that matter, have a professional and ethical responsibility to call out ANY other court officer (such as a guardian-ad-litem) who acts outside of what most would consider the appropriate confines of his/her duties to the court.

This is not a question of agreement or approval of one’s work; this is calling out unethical and highly inappropriate behavior that compromises the integrity of the decisions that must be rendered in our court system.

I will give two examples of cases where elected/appointed court officials were “called out” in such a way. Years ago, Judge Duncan Wheale took the Fleming Legal Dynasty (headed by former Chief Judge William Fleming) to task for what many have called the most corrupt and backwards case assignment system in modern Georgia history. The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously agreed, and the ruling forever changed the way judges were assigned cases in the Augusta judicial circuit.

How many knew the Fleming system was bad? Virtually every judge and lawyer who ever worked in the circuit. All officers of the court, mind you, and all seriously remiss for failing to challenge it any sooner than Wheale did.

In another recent situation, we had the sad case of the growing infirmity of beloved Richmond County Probate Judge Issac Jolles.

Judge Jolles was forced to resign for health reasons about a year short of his last elected term, but it was a resignation that had to come under threat of a JQC investigation into his mental fitness to serve. For many, many months, and some even say a few years, Judge Jolles was slowing down and making alarming mistakes and errors because of a growing problem with dementia-like symptoms. While many lawyers quietly complained to the circuit’s current Chief Superior Court Judge Carlisle Overstreet about the situation, he chose to do nothing about it. The chief judge for the circuit is supposed to act as something of an “office manager” in these situations. While he would have no authority to question another judge’s decisions, the chief is supposed make sure situations like this do not go unchecked.

Because of the potential trouble and myriad legal delays Judge Jolles was creating trying to work incapacitated, another judge was forced to take the issue to the JQC for review. Rather than submit for a fitness test, Judge Jolles quietly chose to retire. Had it not been for that other officer of the court going behind the back of the chief, God knows the damage that could have been done for the next 10 months.

I don’t share that example to belittle a fine man like Jolles, but to show what lengths some of our judicial leadership will go to in an effort to “look out for each other” rather than keep their courts efficient and, most of all, ethical and fair.

Officers of the court in the Augusta Judicial Circuit need to do much better than they did in the case of David Nelson. When the numerous allegations concerning Nelson’s alleged bad behavior became known, he should not have been allowed anywhere near a courtroom, in any official capacity whatsoever, until he assured his colleagues he was innocent and that he was willing to cooperate with the JQC as they attempted to investigate the claims.

The old days of the intimidation and heavy hands of the Flemings and their minions are long past; we cannot allow any hint of that attitude and arrogance to return.

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