367. Lifes a Blitch

On Wednesday a Tennessee judge, Ronald E. Darby, was indicted. He sits on the court of General Sessions – what used to be called JP court, hearing misdemeanor and small claims cases – in Benton County, up in the northwest part of the state, not so very far from the southern tip of Illinois.

Benton County is a rural area of the state. Its population density ranks it 74th among Tennessee counties, and its poorer than the average county, too. Wikipedia says it is known locally “for its duck hunting and fishing industries” – which I didnt even know were industries.

Judges in such isolated areas can establish despotisms. The most extreme example is the psychopathic David Lanier (scroll down), who presided over family court in another western Tennessee county, Dyer, for the opportunity it provided him to rape female litigants in his soundproofed, windowless office.

Darby isnt accused of anything remotely as bad as that. But I wonder if a judges great power in an isolated area combined with a lack of adult supervision might have given him an exaggerated (even if less-exaggerated) sense of either entitlement or invulnerability.

According to the Camden Chronicle:

In May of 2007 Darby started a drug court in Benton County that would allow participants to participate in a program of rehabilitation. The program was designed for non-violent drug offenders who were seeking to rehabilitate their lives by getting off drugs. The program required the participants to provide community service and encouraged participants to seek employment. The program allowed participants to remain out of jail as long as they complied with the requirements that were set forth by the court. Funding for the program was provided by the State of Tennessee.

On September 4, Darby held a graduation ceremony for eight of the drug court members who had completed the program. During the ceremony Darby stated that these eight had completed all of the requirements of the three- phase program. They had remained drug and alcohol free for one year and 40 days and one couple had regained custody of their children. Graduates were presented with a certificate and a bible.

(Do judges in your neck of the woods hand out Bibles?)

Anyway, the allegation is that the “community service” the probationers performed tended to be concentrated on land owned by Judge Darby himself.

Darbys surrender to temptation reminded me of a summertime story about another rural judge who found it hard to resist picking up a few extra perks of the job.

Judge Brooks E. Blitch, III, hailed from Clinch County, Georgia, which gave him jurisdiction over a portion of the Okefenokee swamp, meaning that his constituents included Albert, Porky, Churchy and Pogo himself.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution article from April sets the scene, and vividly illustrates just how much power a judge can wield in rural counties:

Ted Smith could tell you about Superior Court Judge Brooks E. Blitch III. But Ted Smith isnt talking.

Hes fidgeting. His eyes wont meet yours, and hes rubbing his lips with a rough callused hand.

“He aint gone yet,” he says, referring to the judge whose office is just a few blocks away. “Hes still got power —- and I aint talking until he aint.”

People not talking and suddenly nervous at the drop of the Blitch name has become commonplace in this sleepy little town (pop. 2,803) that suddenly isnt so restful in the rural southeast corner of Georgia, about 250 miles from Atlanta.

Judge Blitch is 73 years old and has sat on the bench since 1980.

He grew up in a family that has wielded power over this corner of the world for six decades.

His late mother, Iris Blitch, was elected to the state Legislature in 1947 and later served eight years as a U.S. congresswoman. His wife, Peg Blitch, served 12 years in the state Senate before leaving office in 2004.

Unfortunately, although Blitch is now gone, it doesnt appear the Journal-Constitution has gone back to hear what Mr. Smith might have to say.

In July, when youd think it would be far too hot in Okefenokee for anything but fishin, the FBI arrested Judge Blitch “on federal corruption charges that he illegally paid employees with court fees, gave high-paying jobs to friends and fixed cases.”

I was particularly intrigued by the judicial slush fund alleged in the indictment:

The indictment says Blitch and Sutton ordered more than $73,000 in illegal payments to county employees that came from $15 and $10 fees charged to criminal defendants between 2001 and 2007. The fees were collected into a bank account kept secret from county budget officers, and payments made to employees were never taxed.

I imagine it would be remarkably easy to set up something like that. In effect, it allowed the judge to control the countys budget to a remarkable degree, at least according to the county commissioners.

Also alleged: he created no-show courthouse jobs for friends. And, inevitably,

The indictment also lists dozens of cases in which attorneys and friends of criminal defendants sought favors from Blitch outside of court. In many cases, prosecutors say, Blitch granted them by reducing sentences, terminating probation sentences and ordering defendants early release from jail or prison — often without hearings or notifying prosecutors.

There were even – allegedly – fixers working the courthouse, accepting fees for getting Blitch to take favorable action. Blitch resigned from the judgeship just ahead of the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission hearing.

How could things have gotten so bad and gone on so long? Easy. No Georgia Superior Court judge has been removed from office “in almost 50 years.” That means: Georgia Superior Court judges arent subject to any serious risk of disciplinary proceedings until things get bad and go on a long time. Which means: theyre free to ignore the law and ethical rules so long as they dont get carried away.

All three cases – the monster Lanier, the (alleged) little chiseler Darby, and the (alleged) swamp capo Blitch – all seem to me to present the same basic story. If you give people unrestrained power, some percentage of them will use it without restraint.

The abuse of judicial power is easiest to get away with it in rural counties, far from the nearest investigative reporters, where local lawyers understand how suicidal it would be to complain (and how  dangerous to ones clients, whom the judge holds hostage) and everyone else can be easily snookered with legal mumbo-jumbo.

For every judge like that we hear about, there are many, many more hiding and multiplying behind our courthouse walls.

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