Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Magistrate Says Errors Inadvertent Hammill Defends Actions That Led to Complaints

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Magistrate Says Errors Inadvertent Hammill Defends Actions That Led to Complaints

Article excerpt

Byline: Terry Dickson, Times-Union staff writer

SAVANNAH -- Glynn County Magistrate Joe Hammill, testifying in an inquiry yesterday into his conduct on the bench, said any errors he made were inadvertent and that he did nothing to warrant his removal.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission is holding a hearing in Savannah on complaints that Hammill violated judicial canons, including writing bad checks on his former law office account, ordering weapons seized without first issuing a warrant and ordering a woman to pay damages without conducting a hearing.

The hearing before six members of the panel, which disciplines judges in Georgia, will resume today and could continue tomorrow. The hearing could result in a recommendation to the Georgia Supreme Court that Hammill be removed from office. Once the panel makes its recommendation, Hammill will have 15 days to respond.

Keith Adams, a Savannah lawyer presenting the case against Hammill to the commission, listed judicial canons that he said Hammill violated. He also said Hammill did not conduct his court in a proper fashion and once assured an African-American defendant he would not be compelled to pick cotton as part of his community service.

"He certainly has not been patient, dignified or courteous with those people he deals with in an official capacity," Adams said.

In his own opening statement, Richard Phillips, one of Hammill's lawyers, dealt first with the remark on picking cotton.

"To imply he is a racist in any way . . . is a misapplication of the words that were said," Phillips said. A long-time member of the NAACP, Hammill was elected by more than 60 percent of the voters, Phillips said.

Hammill made some errors but did so innocently and should not be removed, Phillips said.

When he took office, Hammill was in a hostile environment with some of the clerks of court and assistant magistrates already in the office, Phillips said.

Hammill, who took office Jan. 1, 2001, was the first witness called by Adams to testify.

Hammill said he ran into opposition before he took office, including threats from his predecessor, Ernest Gilbert, that Gilbert would inform the Judicial Qualifications Commission and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that he had written bad checks. Gilbert said he would not divulge the bad checks if Hammill would accept him as an assistant so he could help Hammill gain some experience in court.

"I was going to jail. I was a bad person. I was immoral. I didn't know the law. I was ignorant," Hammill said of Gilbert's assertions. Gilbert was subpoenaed but had not testified as the hearing neared the end of the first day.

Hammill acknowledged signing 39 of the more than 46 bad checks written on his law office account but said he didn't know there wasn't enough money in his bank accounts to cover them. …

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