Judicial immunity, in theory, allows judges to make bold, legally sound decisions--even when they are not popular with powerful interests. In reality, the doctrine provides a license to cheat, even steal. And its victims tend to be the everyday folks immunity supposedly is designed to protect.
Unless a judge acts abominably outside his official capacity--say, by harassing or discriminating against his office staff--or attracts the attention of law enforcement by, say, beating his wife (see Fuller, Mark), he is unaccountable and truly above the law.
A Georgia woman, however, is trying to pierce the veil of judicial immunity and hit a corrupt judge where it hurts--right in the wallet. So far, it looks like she might succeed. She certainly appears to have exposed an extraordinary law-enforcement campaign to retaliate on the judge's behalf. That could turn an already intriguing case into one of the legal stories of the year.
Angela Garmley, of Chatsworth, Georgia, filed a judicial disciplinary complaint in 2012, claiming that Murray County magistrate judge Bryant Cochran had solicited sex in exchange for a favorable ruling in a case she had before him. She went to the press with her story and alleged that Cochran retaliated by planting methamphetamine in a magnet box on the underside of her car, conspiring with sheriff's deputies to frame her for a false arrest. Two deputies eventually pleaded guilty to federal charges of planting the drugs.
At a trial last December, a federal jury sided with Garmley, finding the judge guilty on six counts of civil rights and drug violations. The trial also revealed that Cochran had engaged in a three-year affair with a paralegal who testified at his trial that Cochran had asked her to lie about the affair to state and federal authorities.
The judge has been booted off the bench, but the legal battle is far from over. Garmley filed a civil complaint against Cochran, but a North Georgia judge dismissed it in February 2014. Now, after Cochran's criminal convictions, it looks like the lawsuit might rise again. It appears that Cochran's behavior was so heinous, and so far removed from his courtroom duties, that even judicial immunity won't save him. (See civil complaint at the end of this post.)
Stuart James and McCracken Poston, Garmley's attorneys, filed a motion in January for a judge to reconsider the lawsuit. From the motion:
It would be a strange contortion of the law for Cochran to stand in one courtroom of the United States District Court and have it declared 'not plausible' he committed these acts, yet stand in another courtroom in the same courthouse and have it be declared beyond a reasonable doubt that he violated the plaintiff's rights.
The case took another twist in February 2015 when Garmley, who has acknowledged that she has a methamphetamine problem, pleaded guilty to drug-trafficking charges. Her arrest in that case came last September, roughly two months before Cochran's criminal trial.
The attorney for a woman who pleaded guilty to distributing meth on Friday says she was targeted by Murray County officials because of her role in bringing down former Murray chief magistrate judge Bryant Cochran. Angela Garmley was sentenced by Judge Jim Wilbanks to 90 days house arrest and 10 years probation. She must also pay a $2,000 fine plus court costs and surcharges, perform 300 hours of community service work, receive drug treatment and have random drug screens.
Garmley’s attorney, McCracken Poston, called that sentence fair.
“She is motivated. She will get the help she needs. It’s a very good sentence,” he said.
But Poston said Garmley had been targeted by law enforcement because she was the star witness in a federal trial of Cochran.
“Nothing excuses her meth activities that go along with her addiction,” said Poston. “They were going after a federal witness. They were trying to discredit a federal witness before she testified against Bryant Cochran. Ironically, this backfired against them because her arrest made her realize she had a problem. And because she recognized that and dealt with it she was a wonderful witness.”
Is law enforcement running out of control in North Georgia. It certainly looks that way. From the Dalton newspaper report:
Garmley was arrested on Sept. 9, 2014, by Dalton police at the Wal-Mart on Shugart Road on a warrant arising from an undercover drug investigation that began in Murray County.
“I don’t know of any other attorney who has had a client who was twice targeted like this by law enforcement,” Poston said.
What will become of Garmley's lawsuit? Will her guilty plea on drug charges hurt her case if it goes before a jury? How much prison time will former judge Cochran receive? Will a judge finally be forced to pay out of his pocket for gross misconduct and violations of constitutional rights?
All of those questions remain unanswered. But that last one will be of particular interest as this drama continues to unfold.