Originally created 05/03/01

Magistrate's conduct spurs investigation



BRUNSWICK, Ga. - The Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission plans to ask the state Supreme Court to investigate Glynn County Magistrate Joe Hammill, an action that could eventually lead to his removal.

Judge Hammill confirmed Monday night that the panel that disciplines judges had notified him that it would petition the investigation.

Judge Hammill said the commission will look into allegations that he wrote bad checks last year, that he accepted an individual's donation of a TV-VCR for use in his court and that he ordered a woman to pay restitution in a dog-bite case without first conducting a hearing on the matter.

On Tuesday, Judge Hammill acknowledged he had made some honest and sometimes naive errors.

"The mistakes I've made I'm obviously sorry about. I've made them, and I'm working with the staff to make sure I don't make them again," he said.

The former Glynn County commissioner and state senator passed the bar exam in 1993 and went into private practice with William E. Dismer. When then-Magistrate Ernest Gilbert decided to run for Superior Court judge last summer, Judge Hammill defeated Public Defender Tim Barton in the nonpartisan race.

It was during that campaign that he wrote about 20 checks on his law office account for which he did not have funds in the bank, Judge Hammill said.

"I wasn't in the office a lot. I wasn't paying attention to the business end of it," he said.

But Judge Hammill said he wasn't trying to cheat anyone and that no criminal warrants were issued as a result of the checks.

Judge Hammill said he made all the checks good before any of the affected businesses wrote letters demanding payment.

As to his acceptance of the TV-VCR, Judge Hammill said he had mentioned in passing to a salesman that if he had a used piece of equipment that he should drop it by the court to replace a county-owned set that was broken. Judge Hammill said he thought no more of the conversation until the TV-VCR set arrived and was placed in the courtroom.

Judge Hammill said he immediately sought the advice of County Attorney Gary Moore on whether he should keep the equipment.

Mr. Moore recalled Judge Hammill's question about the equipment.

"I don't know of any formal policy on it. He didn't violate any formal policy that I know of," Mr. Moore said.

If there is any problem, it would be a matter of judicial canons rather than a county commission rule, he said.

The equipment has not been used in the court and has never been used for anyone's personal benefit, Judge Hammill said.

In retrospect, Judge Hammill said he should not have accepted the equipment, and he has instructed that it be returned.

"It was an allegation that I allowed someone who appears before the court to give the court something," he said. That is one issue in which he might have been naive, Judge Hammill said.

"I don't think about somebody trying to gain leverage," he said.

Once the Supreme Court dockets the petition, it will appoint a lawyer to investigate the assertions, receive that lawyer's findings and decide what action if any should be taken, a process that will take about 30 days.