Originally created 09/23/05

Disaster averted?



Storm warnings were being issued, and the worst was feared. Damage could have been catastrophic, say some.

But it now appears that a Category 5 tempest between two of Augusta's powerful Superior Court judges has been averted.

Or at least severely downgraded.

Judge Duncan Wheale had been publicly considering leaving his seat in favor of a full-frontal attack on Chief Judge William Fleming's seat in November 2006. This week, however, Wheale announced he would merely seek re-election to his own seat, while focusing on helping the Salvation Army obtain Kroc Foundation funds for a multimillion-dollar social services campus at Chaffee Park.

Considering the animosity between the two men, and the vitriol already spilling into print, a direct confrontation between Wheale and Fleming in a yearlong election campaign could have done inestimable damage to the local court's image - and could have riven the legal community apart by requiring

lawyers to take sides in a bitter battle.

There was not even any campaign under way, and yet the two judges were warring in a recent news article in which Wheale called the chief judge "corrupt" and Fleming suggested Wheale was "mentally ill."

The source of the men's animus is the subject of quiet debate in the legal community - but it came to a head in 2003 when Judge Wheale was very nearly indicted for having a gun in court, and blamed Judge Fleming for the effort to imprison him for it. Fleming denied it.

Wheale ultimately was exonerated - and the courthouse shootings in Atlanta earlier this year proved he had cause for self-protection.

Yet, the prospect of two Superior Court judges in open warfare was casting a pall on the local legal community.

"That campaign," said one courthouse insider, "would absolutely bring our court system down to the lowest possible level that any court system in our country has ever seen. It would lose every ounce of dignity... and reduce it to an absolute shambles. It'd be horrible for this community."

The real victims, said the official, would not be the judges, but instead the average citizen who is busy working and living an upright life and who desperately needs to believe in the credibility and workability of the court system.

The average citizen, the insider continued, has "an absolute right... to know that if everything else goes to hell in our society, that he can depend on his court." Under the current climate, "he can't do that in Augusta, Ga."

A yearlong bloodletting by the judges would make the Augusta Commission's shenanigans look like "playschool," the official said. "To bring that system - that requires such a high level of dignity and humanity and respect for human beings - to a low level would just be a disaster. I don't know that there's anybody that can rebuild that overnight."

That's not to say that there aren't some disturbing truths to ferret out of the Augusta Judicial Circuit. Why, for instance, did the circuit for so long abuse crime victims and delay justice for criminal offenders with an unintelligible case management system that, ultimately, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled was out of step with the law?

Such questions demand answers. And we will seek them.

But, thank goodness, not while in the eye of a massive storm.