Williams, who also presided over the largest drug court in Georgia, could be compassionate, but over the years she became confrontational, arrogant and openly political, say some Brunswick Judicial Circuit lawyers.
“She’d say, ‘You’re a scumbag’ to defendants, and tell lawyers to ‘shut up and sit down,’ ” said Doug Alexander, a St. Simons Island lawyer.
But all that ends Monday, when Williams steps down in the face of 14 counts of judicial misconduct with the threat of criminal charges on the horizon. Williams keeps her state pension and law license but is banned from being a judge under her deal with the Judicial Qualification Commission, the state agency that disciplines judges.
Williams, 65, didn’t return telephone messages left at her St. Simons Island home and her chambers in the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick. Her lawyers previously declined comment.
Lawyers say they tolerated Williams’ belligerence because they feared retaliation against their clients.
“I didn’t have any problem or have to worry about retribution from her because I could avoid her court,” Alexander said. “But I can appreciate a young lawyer starting out or someone new to practicing in the circuit not wanting to rock the boat and bring down her wrath on their clients.”
Alexander was one of Williams’ early supporters and campaigned for her during her first run at the bench. That changed in 2010, when Alexander accused Williams of misusing her position by lobbying for expanding the Glynn County jail downtown. At that time, Alexander and Mary Helen Moses, a lawyer and law professor, represented downtown expansion opponents in a federal lawsuit.
In retaliation for a letter Alexander wrote to local lawyers characterizing Williams as unfit to be a judge, Williams complained to state authorities.
“She called and complained about me and that is what started this whole thing,” Alexander said. “The commission called me and asked about the letter and then came down and interviewed me about her, which led to its investigation of her.”
Critics say her downfall was long overdue. Others, including some who regularly challenged her rulings, defend her as having good intentions but bad people skills.
“She’s not a tyrant,” said Brunswick lawyer Kevin Gough, a former assistant district attorney now in private practice, who’s had “some pretty strong disagreements” with Williams over the years.
“She cared very deeply about doing the right thing and doing justice between the parties,” said Gough, attributing much of what appears wrong in Williams’ conduct on the bench as simply a judge “taking shortcuts” to achieve the same outcome. She might not have always been precise in how she handled some cases, but her goal was to be just, Gough said.
“A lot of things in there look bad,” he said of the judicial commission’s charges, “but it’s a lack of precision.”
Williams leaves the bench just nine days before the deadline to answer the commission charges, which include nepotism, favoritism and possible civil rights violations. Williams in her one-sentence resignation letter, described her tenure as “21 years of dedicated service” as a Superior Court judge in the five-county Brunswick circuit.
After a yearlong investigation, the commission paints a different picture. It charges Williams with “willful misconduct in office” and exhibiting “a tyrannical partiality.”
It also says Williams violated her oath of office and repeatedly lied to the commission during its investigation. Both are felonies. The commission also charged that Williams might have violated the rights of some drug court defendants by ordering them jailed indefinitely or held in solitary confinement indefinitely, barring them from contact with their lawyers, family or friends.
In addition, the commission said Williams allowed her husband, daughter and son, all of whom are lawyers, to argue cases in her court, allowed family and friends to influence her judicial decisions and used “rude, abusive and insulting language” in court.
The commission is forwarding its evidence to state Attorney General Sam Olens, who could appoint a special prosecutor to pursue criminal charges against Williams.
Some of Williams’ opponents feel vindicated.
“Up until a week ago, she was still saying we were lying,’’ said Moses, who ran against Williams in 2010.
Moses said she always believed the commission would eventually act.
“This wasn’t about me getting a job. This was about righting a wrong,’’ she said.
Alexander, Moses and Gough are among the few lawyers willing to talk publicly about Williams. Most still refuse. As a former prosecutor who angered Williams years ago by filing a motion that asked for her to recuse herself from a case said last week, “I don’t know which way the wind will blow on all this.”
More than a few lawyers have raised Williams’ ire at one time or another during her 21 years on the bench.
Williams earned a reputation early on as a stickler for courtroom decorum with little patience for ill-prepared lawyers or those who kept arguing after she’d ruled.
In recent years, however, Williams’ temper got shorter and her outbursts from the bench became more vitriolic. She would rant and berate some lawyers as well as defendants she perceived as disrespectful.
Camden County lawyer J. Robert Morgan was among those who bore the brunt of Williams’ wrath. In a July 2010 complaint against Williams, he detailed incidents in which Williams yelled and cursed at him.
Morgan said in one instance, Williams threatened to hold a hearing to revoke his clients’ probation, repeatedly yelling, “Is that what you want, Robbie?”
He also complained about Williams merging two civil cases with a criminal case against his client after meeting with his client’s ex-wife and her lawyer without his knowledge.
“I about had a stroke I was so mad,” he said of later learning about the private meeting.
Morgan said when he subsequently asked Williams to recuse herself, she blew up at him, triggering a loud confrontation. Williams then “improperly reassigned” the case to another judge, the commission charged.
To her defense
Noting Williams could be unorthodox, Gough acknowledged she sometimes imposed indefinite jail terms on drug court defendants who failed drug tests or missed mandatory meetings without taking all the proper steps.
“She always tried to save people in that program. That’s why people got fifth, sixth and seventh chances when everyone else would have kicked them out,” Gough said.
Gough said the commission’s charges should be examined more closely.
“There’s been a lot of whining from some fairly sorry lawyers about her,” Gough said. “You don’t need a motion to see a client in jail. You don’t need a judge’s permission to file a motion for bond. Assistant district attorneys are not house plants in the courtroom, and there is a thing called the Court of Appeals if you really think a judge has done your client wrong.”
Williams, however, would have been better off had she been more taciturn in her rulings, but she always felt the need to explain herself, Gough said. For her, it was about doing what she believed was the right thing, he said.
“If you were on what she thought was the wrong side of a case, she could be very tough on you.”
Echoing the commission findings, Alexander said Williams has undermined public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.
“We have to have confidence we will be treated fairly and that the justice system works and is not corrupt,” Alexander said. “I really think this has shaken our confidence in the integrity of our courts, and it’s going to take a while to get that back.”