A Camden County associate probate judge pleaded guilty Wednesday to three felonies stemming from an ethics investigation by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, said a special prosecutor who negotiated the plea deal.
Shirley Wise, an associate probate judge who in November was elected chief probate judge of the county, pleaded guilty to theft by taking, theft by deception, and violating her oath of office, said Brian Rickman, the district attorney of Georgia's Mountain Circuit. He was appointed as a special prosecutor by Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens to handle the case after the local district attorney recused.
Chief Judge David Cavender of the Atlantic Judicial Circuit Superior Court sentenced Wise as a first offender to seven years probation and ordered her to pay $5,500 in restitution to the county and a $1,000 fine, Rickman said. Wise also resigned her current post effective immediately, the prosecutor said, and also agreed to resign as the incoming probate judge.
Wise is not a lawyer. Probate judges in Georgia counties with fewer than 100,000 people are not required to have either a college degree, a law degree or a license to practice law. According to her LinkedIn page, Wise has received some paralegal training at a local junior college.
Wise's attorney, James Stein of St. Marys, said that in pleading guilty, Wise accepted responsibility for her actions and mitigated expenses for Camden County's taxpayers "who would have been burdened with the expenses of a trial" if she had chosen to fight the charges.
"It was in the best interest of all concerned," he said. "Serious consideration was given to mitigating expenses for everyone concerned. ... The whole purpose was to put this thing to rest and stop the clock on expenses of the county and everyone concerned."
Wise also agreed, as a special condition of her sentence, that she would not seek or accept any public office in the futurean agreement that was not limited to a judicial post, Rickman said.
Wise's plea marks the first time that the JQC has sought to bar disgraced former judges from public offices beyond the judiciary. The JQC historically has required judges who resign in order to end an ethics investigation to agree not to seek or accept judicial office in the future. But two judges who resigned under ethical cloudsformer Superior Court Judge Oliver Harris "Harry" Doss of the Appalachian Circuit and former Superior Court Judge Johnnie Caldwell Jr. of the Griffin Circuitran for other public offices this year. Doss came in third in a bid to oust the district attorney who had cooperated in the JQC's investigation of Doss.Caldwell won a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives.
Wise's plea also marks just the second time in the JQC's recent history that a judicial ethics investigation has resulted in a criminal conviction of a judge. In 2009, Brooks E. Blitch III, former chief Superior Court judge of the Alapaha Circuit in south Georgia, and the circuit's former state court judge, Berrien Sutton, pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges stemming from a 2007 JQC ethics investigation that had prompted them to resign their judicial posts.
But in February, U.S. District Senior Judge Hugh Lawson of the Middle District of Georgiawho had sentenced the two former judges to probationtossed out their convictions. He did so in accordance with a 2010 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that honest services fraudthe charge to which they each had pleaded was applicable only when the defendants were proven to have participated in a bribery or kickback scheme.