UPDATE: Georgia Supreme Court decision: Judge Tammy Stokes to remain as chief judge

Judge Tammy Stokes
Judge Tammy Stokes

 

SAVANNAH, GA – (WSAV) The Georgia Supreme Court announces Judge Tammy Stokes will remain as head of the Chatham County Recorders Court until a decision is made in her appeal. Last week six superior court judges decided to remove Stokes as the chief judge due to an investigation into allegations of racism and a hostile work environment. The Georgia Supreme Court judges say they were troubled by the allegations but they were concerned about the legality of the decision to remove Stokes as chief.

 

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September 8, 2016:

SAVANNAH, GA – (WSAV) Six superior court judges decided Thursday to remove Tammy Stokes as the chief judge of the Chatham County Recorder’s court.

The decision comes on the heels of a City of Savannah investigation into allegations of racism and a hostile work environment.

 

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August 31, 2016:

When are open records not open?

That was the question in front of a Chatham County Judge Wednesday, as the Chief Judge of Recorder’s court faced off with the City of Savannah.

Judge Tammy Stokes said it’s her right to investigate her court and the law agrees with her.

But a Superior Court Judge brought in from Liberty County didn’t agree, and said the City’s independent investigation is now “open” to the public.

Judge Tammy Stokes had filed a “standing order” to keep the investigation closed, at least until her own investigation was finished.

But that Judge decided that the independent investigation paid for by the city, which included 47 different interviews with current and former employees of the court, should be open for everyone to see.

News 3 got the results of that investigation, which details a divide between Judge Stokes and fellow Judge Claire Williams.

There are various allegations of Stokes trying to target employees who “supported” Williams.

People who supported Stokes would allegedly even go so far as to tell new employees Judge Williams was “crazy”.

One employee was told by someone on “Stokes side” that “Judge Williams will like you better because you are white”.

There were other racial comments about Williams having a problem with “people of our color”.

Some employees friendly with Stokes even called Judge Williams and “her side”, “the Dark Side”.

The most damning allegations may be in the final pages. Multiple people said Judge Stokes would frequently use a pro-tem judge (which costs the county extra money) to sit in on her docket. That’s even though she was in the office.

A current and a former employee also claim Judge Stokes “consumed alcohol” during lunch, and returned to work

Two other people said they “smelled alcohol” on the judge during the work day.

Here is Judge Stokes’ official response:

“As Chief Judge of the Recorder’s Court of Chatham County, I issued the Standing Order due to my legal obligation to respect the privacy and security of the individuals involved. Further, I did not want the premature release of the City’s report to compromise my ability to conduct a confidential and unbiased examination of the facts.  While it was always my intent to release the report immediately upon the completion of the official HR investigation, I nevertheless respect Judge Cavender’s decision.  I will continue to pursue my legal duty to conduct a thorough study of the complaints. While the City purports to have interviewed 47 people, its report is clearly based upon the statements of only four individuals.  While I will take the City’s report and findings into consideration, I assure the citizens of Chatham County that I will conduct a full and fair review of all accurate, complete and verifiable evidence and take all required actions in a decisive and appropriate manner.”

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Who is right – the judge – or the city?

that’s the question which is now in a Chatham County Superior Court. All based on an city investigation into a county court, and one reporter, and the entire area’s attempt to see the results.

The court case reads the City of Savannah vs Recorder’s Court of Chatham County.

Its based the question, what are “open records” and should a Chief Judge be able to close them herself?

It started when the City of Savannah got multiple formal complaints from employees of the court about harrassment, discrimination and retaliation. So the City opened an independent investigation.

Judge Tammy Stokes says the city did not have a right to do that investigation. It is her job as Chief Judge and by law its her job alone.

Stokes even has a letter from State Senator Lester Jackson saying she has “exclusive authority” for overview and supervision of the staff.

That’s confirmed in an email from Savannah City Attorney Brooks Stillwell to Stokes’ attorney Charles Bowen.

In that same letter Stillwell says Stokes has the right to do her own investigation. He closes with “We will not turn over the original documents in our investigation.”

The city’s investigation is finished.

This suit is because a newspaper reporter made an open records request to see the results. Judge Stokes entered a “standing order” which would make that exempt from the open records law, blocking the open records request, keeping it away from the eyes of the media or the general public.

In her Standing Order, Stokes calls the city’s investigation, which included interviewing more than 50 people, “insufficient and incomplete”.

The City has now filed suit saying Judge Stokes “erred” in issuing that standing order. She cannot investigate herself. The City wants all public records connected to Recorder’s court to be released.

Charles Bowen told News 3 the complaint was not filed about Judge Stokes directly, and he calls the whole thing “political”.

Bowen added the Judge would be happy to release the city’s investigation herself… after her own investigation into the claims are finished.

That could be another 30 days or more.

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