Two weeks ago, I wrote about the snafu in North Georgia’s Appalachian Judicial Circuit. Under intense public pressure, Appalachian District Attorney Alison Sosebee had just dropped the fraud charges she had filed against Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason and his attorney Richard Stookey. The charges were related to an open-records-request Thomason and Stookey had made into the spending habits of Appalachian Circuit Judge Brenda Weaver. Judge Weaver was using money in a taxpayer-funded bank account to pay for the legal expenses of a court employee who was suing Thomason over his reporting on former Appalachian Circuit Judge Richard Bradley’s use of racial slurs in the courtroom.
Many First Amendment organizations saw the fraud charges as being used to punish Thomason and Stookey for investigating Judge Weaver. This certainly fits into the incestuous small-town insider narrative that has framed this story. Sosebee had previously clerked for Judge Weaver and had been employed by her husband, George Weaver. The attorney who eventually received the money from Judge Weaver’s account is now one of her colleagues on the Appalachian Circuit. The last we heard, the FBI was looking into Judge Weaver’s account and the circumstances of Thomason and Stookey’s arrests, sure signs of a public corruption inquiry. And investigators may just have found their smoking gun.
The Times Free Press has uncovered emails between Judge Weaver and Alison Sosebee where it appears that Judge Weaver instructed Sosebee on how to prosecute a fraud case against Thomason and Stookey. The emails show that Judge Weaver sent Sosebee sections of the state code she could use and advice on how to cross examine witnesses in the case.
From an outsider’s perspective, it looks as if Judge Weaver directed the entire affair. After receiving a heads-up from Pickens County Commissioner Rob Jones that her bank account was being subpoenaed, she emailed Sosebee, several county sheriffs, and the GBI, complaining that the subpoena’s mention of “illegally-cashed checks” coming from her bank account was “absolutely false.” Things only compounded from there as Judge Weaver became personally invested in seeing that her enemies in the press faced criminal charges for daring to question her integrity.
Judge Weaver’s crusade was not conducted in a particularly intelligent fashion. She used her public email account to request prosecution against Thomason and Stookey, even though she would have had to have known that those emails are part of the public record (just ask Hillary Clinton). Furthermore, she is the chairwoman of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, a position which, quite obviously, puts her actions under extraordinary scrutiny. Richard Stookey said that “[t]here is nobody in that crowd that is smart. It is absolutely the dumbest crowd that I have seen.” I find it hard to disagree.
Perhaps Judge Weaver saw nothing wrong with using her position of influence to jumpstart a criminal investigation against her critics. After all, why should journalists be able to write negatively about public officials and not expect blowback? That idea is certainly becoming more mainstream as a certain presidential candidate is still pondering whether to ban major media outlets who are critical of him.
281 years after the trial of John Peter Zenger established the freedom of the press in America, it appears that many politicians have not yet caught on. Progress indeed. Hopefully, most Americans and Georgians will recognize a threat to democracy and liberty when it presents itself. If so, expect Judge Weaver to join Judge Bradley as a former judge of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit sooner rather than later.