Our View: Sorting Through the Four Amendments

Our View: Sorting Through the Four Amendments

Four proposed state constitutional amendments (explained here and here) await the verdict of Georgia voters:

  • Amendment 1 would create a statewide Opportunity School District, under the authority of a superintendent appointed by and answerable to the governor, composed of schools deemed to be perpetual failures.
  • Amendment 2 would dedicate fines assessed for crimes related to sex trafficking and a special assessment on “adult entertainment establishments” to fund the new Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund, which would provide rehabilitative and restorative care and services to children who were forced into sex work.
  • Amendment 3 would replace the current independent Judicial Qualifications Commission, which is outside the General Assembly’s control except for the Senate confirmation of its seven members, with a panel under legislative control.
  • Amendment 4 would dedicate the new excise taxes raised through the sale of fireworks to trauma care, firefighters and locally determined public safety purposes.

Two of the measures, Amendments 2 and 4, deserve overwhelming approval, even though we are not big fans in principle of dedicating government revenues to specific purposes.

Fireworks Funds

Amendment 4 is a product of the compromise that brought legal fireworks sales to Georgia — a privilege our neighbors in Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina long enjoyed, resulting in Georgia dollars being spent out of state.

Dedicating the resulting new taxes to trauma care, firefighting and other public safety addresses concerns about the dangers of fireworks. Rejecting the amendment and thus bringing fireworks taxes into the state’s general fund would give fireworks foes an excuse to reopen the debate about such sales.

We like being able to buy fireworks close to home. Vote yes on Amendment 4.

Child Protection

Amendment 2 is an even easier call. Georgia has a serious problem with children being used in the sex trade. Through the efforts of leaders such as state Sen. Renee Unterman and former Attorney General Sam Olens, Georgia now properly views those youths as victims, not criminals. This measure would dedicate revenues (estimated to total $2 million a year to start) to contribute to the cost of helping those victims learn to lead normal lives.

Some of the money would come from fines added to the punishment of people convicted of the crimes against those children, from madams and pimps to johns; we defy anyone to attempt a logical argument against such justice.

The second source of revenue for Amendment 2, an assessment on strip clubs, has raised some questions, and the expectation is that once the assessment (1 percent of gross receipts under current legislation) goes into effect, club owners will sue the state. Based on precedents in other states, such lawsuits will fail.

It’s not entirely fair to make the adult entertainment industry pay for a societal problem. But legislative hearings found that strip clubs often serve as meeting places for sex traffickers and their customers and that a significant amount of trafficking occurs within a mile of clubs. Plus, this measure fits with the long tradition of using sin taxes for the public good, and the good doesn’t get much better than what Amendment 2 would accomplish.

While Amendments 2 and 4 are about dedicating revenues, Amendments 1 and 3 are about shifting power.

Judicial Trickery

Amendment 3 appears to be an effort to trick Georgians into going along with a dramatic change in a body few voters are even aware exists, the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

Ideally, the system of electing judges would protect the quality and integrity of our state judiciary. Judges who embarrass themselves, who use racist or derogatory language in court, who are guilty of sexual misconduct or financial improprieties, or who otherwise abuse their positions would receive justice at the ballot box.

But once judges are on the bench, often through gubernatorial appointment to fill vacancies, they are rarely ousted. Many are unopposed every four years, in part because they who are challenged almost never lose. Unless we know judicial candidates personally or have interactions in court, we voters just don’t have any basis to vote against the incumbents.

Thus, the importance of the Judicial Qualifications Commission. As created by a 1972 constitutional amendment, it provides a forum for judges accused of misconduct to face a jury of their peers: two judges, three other lawyers and two interested citizens who are not lawyers. To ensure fairness, the state Supreme Court reviews the commission’s recommendations.

According to reports, the commission has forced more than 60 judges from the bench since 2007. Given the number of judges at all levels in this state — Fulton County alone has almost 60 people serving on the Superior, State and Magistrate courts — that’s not an excessive number.

Georgians for Judicial Integrity, a group that formed in opposition to Amendment 3, shares examples of judges the commission has disciplined at its website, www.georgiajudges.org. These aren’t people being targeted because someone doesn’t like their rulings. Some examples:

  • Fannin County Superior Court Judge Roger Bradley resigned in February after being investigated for using the N-word during a trial.
  • Clinch County Superior Court Judge Brooks Blitch III, the chief judge of the Alapaha Circuit, resigned in 2008 after an investigation found that he ordered unauthorized court fees to be collected and deposited into a secret account for distribution to himself and other court employees.
  • Coweta Circuit Chief Judge William Lee Jr. resigned in 2012 after a he threw out a statutory rape conviction and replaced it with a charge that would spare the defendant from registering as a sex offender, even though Lee didn’t notify the prosecutor or the 14-year-old victim’s family as required by law.
  • Twiggs County Probate Judge Kenneth Fowler was barred from the bench after the commission in 2010 found that he required defendants to prove their innocence or used a “preponderance of the evidence” standard instead of “beyond a reasonable doubt” in criminal cases.

Then there’s the case of Griffin County Superior Court Judge Johnnie Caldwell Jr., who resigned in 2010 while being investigated on allegations of making sexually suggestive remarks to a female lawyer. Caldwell agreed not to seek judicial office again; instead, he was elected in 2012 to the Georgia House, where he co-sponsored the legislation overhauling the commission that helped end his judicial career.

Caldwell’s role contributes to the suspicion that Amendment 3 is a power grab and punishment for the commission’s work, not about the unexplained problems that supposedly have undermined the commission’s integrity.

“This amendment is the very essence of cronyism, conflicts of interest and self-dealing,” lawyer Esther Panitch argued in a letter to The Daily Record that she distributed on Facebook.

We agree. Vote no on Amendment 3.


School Salvation

The most challenging choice is Amendment 1, which has a noble purpose: to rescue children who attend schools that perpetually fail in their educational mission. Amid the inflammatory rhetoric used by proponents and opponents, we see the issue as boiling down to local control.

Amendment 1’s critics portray the statewide school district as moving educational decisions away from communities and in the process demeaning those communities as unfit to support their children. Critics also fear that the default approach of the superintendent of the new Opportunity School District would be to implement charter schools contracted out to private businesses, to the detriment of the students.

But most of the schools that are failing state assessments are in large school districts — Atlanta and DeKalb County combined have about a third of the schools eligible for the Opportunity School District — where they suffer from the inability to assess their own needs and find solutions amid massive bureaucracy and the uneven distribution of resources and teaching talent. They already lack local control.

Moving oversight of those schools to an administrative authority focused only on their needs and capable of sharing best practices and ideas across the state could free the schools to find and implement their own solutions — particularly in cases in which the state superintendent works with local school officials or, in response to the desires of school families, opts for the charter school approach. Those scenarios would produce more community control even with state oversight.

Amendment 1 is not a perfect solution. The state’s assessment system, based on fixed standards instead of measurable progress, is a problem, as is the lack of oversight and of guaranteed community voices for the new state administration. The status quo, however, is not acceptable, nor is the standard government response of throwing money at the problem.

We lean toward yes on Amendment 1, but we urge you to make your decision based on an assessment of which system would give parents and neighborhood organizations a stronger voice in their community schools.

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