Columbia County Clerk of Court Cindy Mason has accused an Augusta judge of removing, altering or misplacing public documents – a violation of state law that carries a felony charge and up to 10 years in prison.
According to an affidavit filed last week, Mason alleged that Superior Court Judge J. David Roper violated Georgia’s Civil Practice Act, which requires pleadings and papers to be filed in the clerk’s office.
Under the law’s lone exception, a judge can file documents into a court’s records, but only if he or she notes the date and sends the papers to the clerk’s office in a timely manner, which Mason claims Roper failed to do.
She contends the judge broke the law by engaging in a “persistent practice of trying to micromanage the clerk’s office” through “checking out original files relating to cases assigned to him and keeping them for months at a time.”
“He marks documents filed with his own filing stamp, but does not timely send them to the clerk’s office for recording,” Mason stated in her affidavit.
She further claims that Roper would get irritated with her staff when they asked him to return records.
She said that on many occasions, her office had to re-create entries on appeal by piecing together pages from digital files because Roper would often return records with missing documents that he had “removed, altered, or misplaced.”
“Judge Roper has in the past checked out files, kept these files for months, and sometimes over a year, had lawyers file additional documents with him and has kept litigation files that are a matter of public record away from public inspection and review,” Mason wrote in her affidavit. “This practice is contrary to the law and makes it impossible for the press and public from seeing files that are by law subject to public inspection.”
Mason’s affidavit comes in response to a contempt complaint that Roper filed against her June 1 for “willfully failing to comply” with an order Chief Superior Court Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet issued in January about how public documents should be filed.
In the order, clerks in Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties were directed to file all attachments for divorce and domestic decrees – including papers that were previously logged – “as single documents.”
Overstreet said he issued the order after reaching a consensus among circuit judges that a more organized record was needed for a clientele considered to be becoming “more mobile” and residing in multiple jurisdiction and states.
He vacated the order June 3 because he determined it wasn’t helping the public, given the current controversy.
Neither Mason nor Roper would comment on the affidavit or the contempt complaint, which remains open.
“I’ve never had any problems with constitutional officers battling over the law like this,” Overstreet said. “It was my understanding that judges had agreements with clerks to receive copies, not originals, of case files and if there was a hearing in which an affidavit was used to base a decision, they entered it into the record, according to the letter of the law.”
Under Georgia law, any public officer who alters, defaces or falsifies any minutes, document, book or proceeding belonging to the state can face a felony charge and between two to 10 years in prison.
Augusta District Attorney Ashley Wright said there is “no current investigation” into Mason’s claims.