Originally created 06/17/04

Judge seeks change for juvenile post



Deciding who should sit behind closed doors and determine the fate of children might soon change.

One of the eight men who will appoint judges to serve in the juvenile courts in Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties said he wants to change the process.

In the past, those seeking the positions spoke individually to the Superior Court judges who voted on who would preside over juvenile court. The job consistently has gone to a juvenile court public defender at the time of an opening.

"We're going to do better advertising and encourage the very best people to apply (for a juvenile court judgeship) to protect our children," said Judge Duncan Wheale, of the Augusta Judicial Circuit Superior Court bench.

Judge Wheale is a frequent critic of how juvenile judges are selected in Georgia, and specifically of the current Richmond County Juvenile Court judge, Herbert Kernaghan Jr.

Judge Wheale said Wednesday he wants juvenile court candidates to complete a questionnaire, similar to the one required from judicial candidates interested in judicial positions that require the governor to make appointments until an election.

"I think we ought to have the best people of all. These judgeships in Georgia are the most important," he said, adding that because the juvenile court hearings are closed to the public, the skill and integrity of a juvenile court judge is even more critical.

An advertisement for the one full-time and two part-time juvenile court judge positions appeared in The Augusta Chronicle's legal advertising section on May 26 and June 2 and 7.

The state law requires that the advertisement for appointments run once a month for three consecutive months.

Judge Wheale said he didn't know the ads had been published or that those interested were directed to write only to Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr.

"It's one more attempt by Judge Fleming to fill the positions with family members or friends so they will only be accountable to him," Judge Wheale said.

In the past, the attorney serving as the public defender for juvenile court has been selected to be the next juvenile court judge, he said, but there's no rule or policy that requires it.

Currently, Judge Fleming's sons William and Brendan Fleming serve as public defenders for the juvenile courts in Columbia and Burke counties and Richmond County, respectively.

Phone calls to Judge Fleming and several other judges seeking comment were not returned Wednesday.

The juvenile court judges are appointed by the Superior Court judges - the only nonelection judgeships in Georgia. The appointments are for four years, and once on the bench, a juvenile court judge can be removed from office only by the Georgia Supreme Court. Until a 2000 law passed by the General Assembly, the Superior Court judges had supervisory and appellate authority over juvenile courts.

Another judge who did comment Wednesday was Judge Neal Dickert. He was on the bench when the Superior Court judges last appointed part-time juvenile court judges - Douglas Flanagan and Hugh Hadden in 2001.

"We didn't have a formal interview process," Judge Dickert said.

He was familiar with most of the lawyers who expressed an interest, however, and they spoke individually to the Superior Court judges, he said.

Judge Dickert shares Judge Wheale's belief the juvenile court judgeship is crucial - the judge presides over delinquency matters and child abuse and neglect cases.

He hasn't seen Judge Wheale's proposed questionnaire, but Judge Dickert said knowing the candidates' qualifications and backgrounds would help the judges select the best people.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.