A Sandy Springs city judge has drawn criticism for recent comments to a Muslim defendant that an appeals court condemned while upholding her ruling in the case. The judge, Sharon Dickson, is up for reappointment this year to the Sandy Springs bench, and also sits on Dunwoody’s city court.
Dickson told Fazial Azizan in a court hearing Jan. 25 that she believed he was disrespecting her by not looking at her because where he comes from “women don’t mean anything,” according to an official transcript.
Dickson did not return a request for comment.
A Muslim civil rights organization and a lawyer representing him says that Dickson’s comments were “bigoted” and based on the race of the defendant, Azizan, an Iranian-American.
Dickson also serves as a judge in the Dunwoody Municipal Court, according to city spokesperson Bob Mullen. He did not respond to questions about the city of Dunwoody’s view on Dickson’s comments.
Dickson formerly worked at Riley McClendon, but left in 2014 before her judgeship appointment, according to her social media. Riley McClendon, a Marietta-based firm, contracts with both the cities of Dunwoody and Sandy Springs to provide legal staff. The city solicitor who represented Sandy Springs in the case against Azizan is Bill Riley, a partner at the firm, according to city spokesperson Sharon Kraun.
Cecil McLendon, another partner at the firm, serves as one of Sandy Springs’ assistant city attorneys.
The Riley McClendon firm had its own controversy over anti-Muslim comments last year, when Lenny Felgin, its assistant city attorney for Dunwoody, was accused of making vulgar and bigoted remarks about Muslims and women on his Facebook account. Felgin said his account was hacked, but resigned from the firm.
Dickson has previous experience working in government, having served as the assistant solicitor for both DeKalb and Gwinnett counties.
Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, who appointed Dickson to the bench, did not defend her comments, but said that she has been cleared legally of bias.
“I would not have said those comments, and I disagree with them, but the Superior Court of Fulton County found that the judgment rendered by Judge Dickson was not improper,” Paul said in a written statement.
Dickson was appointed by Paul in June 2014 along with three other new judges. She was recommend by a panel of five Atlanta lawyers convened by Paul to make recommendations for new judges, a process he said is used in several states. The lawyers included Ray Smith, David Flint, Jay Elmore, Ray Persons and Karen Bragman, according to the meeting minutes.
The city’s municipal court judges serve four-year terms after being appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. The judges hear cases such as traffic and DUI offenses, local ordinance violations and some misdemeanor shoplifting and marijuana possession cases, according to the charter.
Judges are required in Sandy Springs to be at least 25 years old and a member of the State Bar of Georgia, the legal profession’s governing body, for at least three years, according to the city charter.
According to her listing on the Georgia Bar’s website, Dickson has received no disciplinary action and is in “good standing.”
Dickon’s appointment letter said she would serve until the first June Sandy Springs City Council meeting of 2018. However, that meeting has passed and no judges have been reappointed or replaced. Kraun, the city spokesperson, said that judges are allowed to continue serving until reappointed or replaced, even if that is after the four-year term limit enshrined in the City Charter. There is no deadline on how long they can continue serving without reappointment, Kraun said.
Paul plans to make recommendations to the City Council soon, but did not comment about his thoughts on specific judges, Kraun said.
Paul said in the written statement that city tries not to intervene with the court system.
“We try to keep our city court independent without political involvement. There is a clear separation of powers, much like the federal level,” Paul said.
Azizan appealed the ruling to the Superior Court of Fulton County, which ruled June 18 that Dickson’s comments were “objectionable and wholly inappropriate.” However, the court ruled that there was no evidence any bias affected Dickon’s ruling against Azizan and upheld the conviction, according to the court’s ruling.
In the January city court hearing, Azizan was convicted by Dickson of disorderly conduct and sentenced to five months imprisonment. Azizan was arrested and charged after a March 2017 car accident, McClendon said.
“The derogatory statements Judge Dickson made to Mr. Azizan regarding his national origin were outrageous and unacceptable,” said Jason McLendon, the attorney representing Azizan. McLendon is not part of the Riley McClendon law firm and owns his own firm.
The next step, McClendon said, is asking the Court of Appeals to review the case. McClendon said they should know if the court agrees to take it up by August.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group, said it sent a letter June 27 to City Attorney Dan Lee asking the city to vacate the conviction. However, Kraun said the city did not receive the letter.
“A judge who harbors a bias against people because of where “they come from” cannot be trusted to issue rulings about those people. This is especially true when a judge openly expresses that bias in court,” said attorney Edward Ahmed Mitchell, executive director of CAIR-Georgia, in the letter.