Zimmerman did not return multiple phone calls or an email requesting a comment. Shoenthal did not return the messages relayed by his lawyer.
Zimmerman and Shoenthal worked together in the municipal courtroom for eight years. As a city attorney, Shoenthal prosecuted cases in Zimmerman Court, including traffic tickets, drunk driving, minor drug offenses and disorderly conduct.
Alpharetta City Court handled 9,376 cases in fiscal year 2022, or about 800 cases per month, Deputy City Administrator James Drinkard said.
Drinkard said that unless Zimmerman and Shoenthal were sick or on vacation, they were judge and prosecutor for all cases in Alpharetta City Court.
Zimmerman retired in July, after the JQC reported its findings. Shoenthal was replaced in April.
The JQC resolved its investigation against Zimmerman in June when he decided to step off the bench. He agreed not to accept any elected or appointed judicial office in the future “in lieu of formal charges”, the JQC report said. The report says the settlement is “a fair settlement of the matter and is in the interests of justice”.
The watchdog’s investigation found reasonable cause that Zimmerman violated the code of judicial conduct by improperly representing “a party in a personal matter in another jurisdiction when the party regularly appeared before him…before Alpharetta City Court,” the report said.
In addition to that reference, the report says Zimmerman has taken “legal action” in instances where he should have recused himself.
Without directly saying that Zimmerman was somehow involved as an attorney in cases presented in Municipal Court, the report cites a section of the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct on part-time judges which says that judges “must not practice law in the court in which they sit, nor act as advocates in proceedings in which they have been judges”.
JQC rules state that details uncovered by a board of inquiry may be withheld confidential.
Clark Cunningham, a professor of law and legal ethics at Georgia State University, said the JQC let Zimmerman off the hook and his investigative committee should have used its right to waive confidentiality of information. According to JQC rules, this can be done if it is “in the interests of justice and to protect the public”.
“I think it showed very poor judgment on the part of the inquiry committee and the JQC to allow him to resign with (a deal) that sealed the case,” Cunningham said.
In 2014 and 2015, Zimmerman represented Shoenthal in court against her daughters over her late husband’s pension.
Elliott Shoenthal was a judge at DeKalb Juvenile Court, who died in 2013. Prior to his death, he filed a form changing his pension recipients to his two daughters instead of his wife, but never filed the paperwork, a said attorney Christopher Anulewicz, who represented the girls.
Anulewicz said he was concerned at the time about Zimmerman’s conflict of interest.
“Representing a lawyer who appears before you (in court) is totally inappropriate and clearly prohibited by the canons that govern judicial ethics,” Anulewicz said of Zimmerman.
Zimmerman was an attorney for Shoenthal in the trial court and appeals court, Anulewicz said.
The appeal case has been decided in favor of Shoenthal in the Georgia Court of Appeals in 2015the documents show.
Shoenthal has worked as a contractor for the city of Alpharetta since the early 2000s, Drinkard said.
Zimmerman was first appointed as a judge of Alpharetta Municipal Court in 2014. The Charlotte native was reappointed in January for another four-year term. He also served as a part-time judge in the Fulton County Trial Court for 42 years.
Due to the lack of detail in the JQC report, Alpharetta launched an independent investigation into Zimmerman’s conduct. City administrator Robert Regus announced the hiring of Randy Rich of English law firm Taylor to lead the investigation on July 11.
Alpharetta officials declined to comment on what the former judge’s actions might means for the cases on which it has ruled. And the JQC declined to comment beyond its published report.