Ethics panel recommends removal of Georgia judge over misconduct accusations

Georgia’s Supreme Court should permanently remove a state appeals court judge accused of ethical misconduct, a judicial discipline panel recommended in a report released Monday.

The three-member state panel said Christian Coomer flouted ethics rules on how a lawyer should treat a client and looted his campaign account to pay for family vacations and loans to keep his struggling law firm afloat.

"Respondent’s persistent failure to abide by basic ethical and professional standards for lawyers and jurists justifies — in fact necessitates — the recommendation to the Supreme Court that Respondent be removed from office," the panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission wrote in a 50-page report summing up a seven-day trial on the issue from last year.

Coomer will have a chance to respond, and the high court justices could disregard both the facts and the recommendations. Coomer’s lawyer, Mark Lefkow, noted that although the panel found that commission staffers had proved 29 of 34 counts, it found that it had not been proven that Coomer had committed fraud, deceit, dishonesty or misrepresentation.

"The recommendation otherwise misconstrues the evidence in a manner not supported by the witnesses’ testimony and the record, and it imposes legal standards not established by the law," Lefkow said in a statement, adding that Coomer believes justices "will look carefully at the record and the law and reach a different conclusion."

The Supreme Court suspended Coomer in January 2021.

The panel, which ruled unanimously, included Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, former DeKalb County State Court Judge Dax Lopez and retired businessman Jack Winter.

They agreed that Coomer broke rules of conduct when he borrowed more than $360,000 from a client on terms favorable to Coomer, and wrote a will and trust for the client that made Coomer both the executor and beneficiary. Coomer repaid the money to client Jim Filhart with interest — but most was returned after Filhart sued Coomer, accusing him of fraud and malpractice.

"Respondent either knowingly violated these rules and laws — and didn’t care — or he lacked basic knowledge of the ethical and professional responsibilities of his important position as attorney, counselor, and, ultimately, judge," the panel wrote.

The panel also agreed that Coomer acted improperly when, as a state House member, he used his campaign account to pay for family trips to Hawaii and Israel, with only the trip to Israel having any relation to legislative business. The panel also faulted Coomer for making loans from his campaign account to his law firm.

"Whether it was keeping the sinking finances of his law practice afloat with campaign monies or using the campaign account to fly his family around the world to exotic destinations for largely or entirely personal vacations, respondent misused tens of thousands of campaign dollars on personal ventures," the panel wrote.

Coomer earlier paid a $25,000 fine over those transfers. He also faces a state bar investigation.