The judge overseeing the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating case on Thursday said he was trying to make sure tax money wouldn’t be wasted when he telephoned the Georgia Court of Appeals about a matter related to the APS prosecution.
All 13 defendants in the APS case have asked Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter to remove himself. Baxter, the defendants assert, improperly contacted the appeals court and tried to influence the outcome of a defendant’s appeal.
Baxter said that was not the case.
“My intent was to find out how long it would take for them to make their decision,” Baxter said in a brief telephone interview. “Our jury clerk was about to send out summons for 1,500 jurors for a trial set to begin in early May. We were dealing with taxpayers’ dollars that I didn’t want to be wasted. I needed to know when the appeal would be decided.”
The appeal involved a motion filed by defendant Tamara Cotman — a motion that Baxter had denied, prompting Cotman’s appeal.
Cotman’s lawyer, Benjamin Davis, recently sought to recuse Baxter from the case after the Court of Appeals issued a decision in the Cotman matter. The appeals court, while denying a prosecution request to dismiss Cotman’s appeal, included a footnote disclosing that Baxter had made “multiple phone calls” to the court’s clerk urging “quick action” on Cotman’s appeal and the prosecution’s motion.
This week, lawyers for the 12 other defendants remaining in the test-cheating case joined Davis’ recusal motion and some, including the defense team for former Superintendent Beverly Hall, filed their own motions saying Baxter should be removed.
The judge has suspended proceedings in the APS case until the recusal motions are heard by Fulton Superior Court Judge Shawn LaGrua, who was randomly assigned to consider them. LaGrua, who has yet to set a hearing, can remove Baxter if she finds his actions created an appearance of bias.
On Thursday, Baxter said he was not trying to influence the outcome of Cotman’s appeal, which contends the racketeering case against her should be dismissed on double-jeopardy grounds. Baxter said he asked the court to expedite its handling of the appeal or let him know if he was going to have to wait up to a year before re-setting the trial date.
Baxter recently delayed the trial until Aug. 11 so Hall could receive new rounds of treatment for her Stage IV breast cancer, which has spread to other parts of her body.
By Bill Rankin
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution