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Habersham courts weather judicial storm
Ethics investigations precede sudden resignations by 2 judges
Jim Cornwell

In the span of four months, Habersham County’s two superior court judges stepped down amid investigations into possible ethical violations.

In the aftermath, some scandal-weary attorneys in the circuit are ready to turn the page.

“We need to move on,” said Allyn Stockton, a Rabun County attorney and president of the bar association for the Mountain Judicial Circuit, where judges Jim Cornwell and Ernest “Bucky” Woods presided. “The main thing is we need to just make sure the public has confidence at the end of the day that the legal system isn’t just about one person or any one position.”

Woods, who was on the circuit’s superior court bench for 18 years, submitted his resignation letter to Gov. Sonny Perdue in December after reports of his communications with a woman on the Internet social networking site Facebook drew scrutiny from the state Judicial Qualifications Commission.

Cornwell, a superior court judge since 1998, submitted his resignation April 16, a few weeks after the JQC began interviewing people about possible conflicts of interests in civil cases over which Cornwell presided, according to Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Brian Rickman.

Rickman said he could not comment on any specific allegations.

According to public court records, Cornwell presided over a divorce of a woman who later spent the night with him, which the woman’s ex-husband alleged was a violation of the divorce decree Cornwell signed.

In a September 2007 deposition, Monica Elizabeth Hunt confirmed that she and her children spent the night with Cornwell at his home after her divorce. Her ex-husband, Andrew Hunt, filed a motion asking that Monica Hunt be held in contempt of their custody agreement, which Cornwell signed.

Cornwell later recused himself from the case.

Cornwell’s own divorce records were ordered sealed by Woods in January 2007.

Efforts to reach Cornwell and Woods for comment were unsuccessful.

In an April 19 letter addressed to his friends and colleagues, Cornwell said “... I have found I am tired of making life-changing decisions for other people.”

“Whether a judge decides with whom a child lives or an appropriate sentence, it is a monumental event,” Cornwell wrote. “I think I need to take a life pause to make decisions where my own life should go. I retire from the bench for my own personal reasons.”

Cornwell’s resignation, which is effective May 15, came as the JQC was interviewing people about whether the judge violated the Georgia Code of Judicial Ethics, Rickman said.

Cheryl Custer, the executive director of the JQC, did not return a message seeking comment. The JQC does not typically confirm investigations into judges unless formal charges are filed. The JQC has not filed charges against Cornwell or Woods.

Rickman said seeing the circuit’s only two superior court judges step down under clouds “has been pretty tough.”

“It’s very hard, because part of what we depend on are people’s perceptions of the system and people’s trust in the system,”

Rickman said. “It definitely doesn’t make our job any easier.”

The prosecutor said he was “Disappointed, absolutely.”

Rickman said he has no reason to believe either investigation involved criminal wrongdoing, and thinks the resignations will have no effect on pending or closed criminal cases.

Stockton, the president of the local bar association, said in his eyes, the judges’ reputations remain intact.

“As far as any shortcomings they might have had, I would submit they were far outweighed by the good things they did while they served on the bench,” Stockton said, noting that the circuit was known for speedy and efficient case management. “I certainly don’t feel one bit less of either one of them.”

Stockton said the consensus of the bar is “an air of excitement” over the two new judges recently appointed by Perdue.

Toccoa attorney Rusty Smith replaces Woods and Habersham County State Court Judge Kim Crawford will replace Cornwell.

“Both Rusty and Kim are quick studies, and both of them are decisive,” Stockton said. “They’re going to do a good job, I’m confident of that, and that appears to be the consensus of the bar.”

Stockton said he hopes “we can get the focus off the individuals and onto the fact that we have a fair and well-run justice system up here.”

“We just need to move to that as fast as possible,” he said.