Joyce Griggs
Joyce Marie Griggs

For third-time congressional candidate Joyce Marie Griggs, it is an issue that won’t go away.

In 2001, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia barred Griggs from practicing law in federal courts. Three years later, the Supreme Court of Georgia followed suit, banning her from practicing in state courts.

After flaring up in the Democratic primary in 2020, the demise of Griggs’ legal career has emerged again in her current race against Wade Herring and Michelle Munroe for the Democratic nomination to run against Republican Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter in November.

While disbarment is not a crime, it is the harshest penalty the legal profession can mete out for violations of its code of professional conduct, a code that lawyers vow to uphold when they’re sworn into the bar.

Far from viewing her disbarments as a political liability, she touts them as a reason why she is the best qualified candidate to represent Georgia’s First District in U.S. Congress.

Griggs, who is Black, has cast herself as a victim of a racist and sexist judicial system. She has described the sanctions as retaliation for challenging the political status quo in 2000 when she first ran for public office against Republican Rep. Jack Kingston. That experience, she says, helps her understand Coastal Georgia voters.

“I know what it’s like to be discriminated against. I know what it’s like to be lied about,” the 70-year-old decorated Army veteran said at a candidate forum last month sponsored by Savannah State University and The Current.

“Look at what happened to the Supreme Court nominee a couple of weeks ago, as highly qualified as she was,” said Griggs, referring to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and the demagoguery and grandstanding at U.S. Senate hearings to confirm her nomination to become the first Black woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. 

“That’s why I’m running also, to prevent this from happening to other people,” especially Black women, Griggs said.

Misleading statements

However, an examination of Griggs’s campaign statements and hundreds of pages of court records shows that the Garden City resident has offered misleading statements about her disbarments and has minimized the role her own conduct played in her legal setbacks.

First District candidates for U.S. House Joyce Marie Griggs, Wade Herring, and Michelle Munroe appear at a forum on April 26, 2022.

When pressed on the campaign trail and by The Current, she has accused a frustrated former campaign adviser, a current adviser to Munroe, and the news media — including The Current — of attempting to discredit her by dredging up what she calls “old news.”

Whether Griggs’ disbarments and her portrayal of them are relevant to Democratic voters is a question for them to decide when they cast their primary votes. Her biography as a daughter of sharecroppers, a working single mother, and Bronze Star winner along with her long community service in Coastal Georgia gives her strong grassroots network and name recognition. 

Democratic Party stalwarts point to her previous campaigns as evidence that Griggs will produce a strong turnout. In the 2020 primary, the majority of Democratic voters in the district were Black — 37% were Black women, followed by Black men at 20.61%. White women comprised 19.08% primary voters that year, while White men were 13.11%.

‘Conspiracy against me’ 

Joyce Griggs retired from the U.S. Army as a Lt. Colonel. Credit:

This spring, Griggs has leaned into her legal struggles and crafted a narrative around them. In doing so, she has employed the lawyer’s dictum: Pick a favorable set of facts and stick with it.

At a candidate forum on May 5 sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Coastal Georgia, Griggs described her disbarment from the federal bar in 2001 as a “conspiracy against me” by “federal judges . . . who didn’t believe that women nor Blacks should be practicing law.” She also described the judges as “Confederate-era.” The alleged conspiracy, she said, was motivated by her “strong” showing against Kingston in the 2000 election. She lost by 38.2% of the vote. 

‘True and correct’

What is missing in Griggs’ accounts is any acknowledgement of professional mistakes or shortcomings. 

In disbarring her in 2001, the federal court’s four-judge panel painted an unsparing portrait of her lapses as her lawyer. 

Griggs, they said in a court order, “made false representations to the federal district court about her actions as counsel or about her filings on behalf of her clients in various cases; that she abandoned her clients’ cases by not timely filing complaints, motions, or briefs, by not responding to motions, and by not responding to court orders requiring her action to preserve her clients’ claims and as a result, her clients’ cases were dismissed; and that at other times, she made unwarranted or vexatious claims or defenses.” 

Griggs tendered her resignation on May 8, 2001, one day before she was required to appear in court to explain why she should not be sanctioned. The next day, the court accepted her resignation and disbarred her. Griggs signed that order, acknowledging that the court’s description of her conduct was “true and correct.”

Griggs also was required to turn over to the court a list of her active cases, including 135 bankruptcy clients, and the names of lawyers who would take over the cases.

‘Irrational, unsupportable and absurd speculation’

Eight months later, Griggs filed a motion to withdraw her resignation, asking the court to reinstate her to the bar. She argued in court filings that the four-judge panel had applied “pressure, intimidation, victimization, racial/sexual prejudice.” She also said she had suffered an “unbearable” health condition — lupus — and “inadequate time to prepare.” 

The District Court and later, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, rejected Griggs’ motion. The U.S. attorney for the Southern District said her allegations represented “irrational, unsupportable, and absurd speculation.” The appellate court ruled in October 2002 that she had failed to provide any evidence that her resignation stemmed from a mistake, pressure, intimidation, victimization, prejudice, or her poor health.”

While Griggs was mounting that appeal, the State Bar of Georgia and the Supreme Court of Georgia also undertook disciplinary proceedings against her. In 2004, the court struck her from the rolls of lawyers allowed to practice in Georgia. 

Griggs repeatedly has alleged, without evidence, that the Savannah Morning News triggered the state sanction. She has said that the bar denied her due process and violated its own rules by assigning a special master to her case who lived in Liberty County, where she then resided.

‘They knew they were wrong’

In addressing questions about her disbarments, Griggs has focused on what she says is a key fact. In 2009, the Georgia Supreme Court, in the so-called Stubbs case, overruled her disbarment from state courts. 

What she omits, however, is that when she applied two years later for automatic reinstatement to practice law, citing Stubbs, the court refused. It said that her disbarment from state courts was not based solely on conduct set forth in the federal proceeding against her. It said a disciplinary hearing on a pending complaint must be held before reinstatement was considered. 

At the May 5 candidate forum, Griggs said Georgia’s Supreme Court justices refused to automatically reinstate her because “they knew they were wrong” in disbarring her in the first place. 

Griggs has not pursued the court-directed path for reinstatement. Asked why, she declined to answer in a telephone interview with The Current.

The Georgia State Bar and former case attorneys for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia declined to answer questions about Griggs’ legal hearings or her accusations that they worked against her out of racial animus.

Behavior unchanged

Former colleagues, including Black Georgians, say that the behavior for which the state and federal courts sanctioned Griggs in 2001 and 2004 has not changed. 

The omissions, the disorganization, the misdirection cited by federal judges are familiar to Andreal Mallard, Sr., Griggs’ marketing and media manager for her 2020 congressional campaign. Earlier this month, he posted a video challenging Griggs’s integrity and condemning her treatment of employees and contractors.

“She was very sweet at first, but when it came down to handling her business, she turned into a tyrant,” recalled Mallard, who says Griggs owes his company, Game Changers Media Network, $3,250 for work it did for her campaign. 

“Her using sexism, and all of this stuff about her oppression and people working against her? No, the issue is Joyce’s integrity,” he said. “You can see her integrity by how many people she’s worked with, and how many people she’s failed. How can we expect someone to handle a state budget, if they don’t have the integrity to maintain the people that they so-call ‘trust’ to run their campaign?”

Mallard said his experience with Griggs soured him on her candidacy. “She has no formula to win an election, no formula to beat Buddy Carter, no vision for Coastal Georgia, no solid plans on how to improve its economy. She doesn’t reflect the community that Coastal Georgia is right now,” he said.

Lashing out

Griggs has dismissed Mallard’s claims as the rantings of a disgruntled employee. At the May 5 candidate forum, she said she did not pay his company because he did not fulfill his contract.

Griggs also accused Liberty County political consultant Sabrina Newby, who also worked on Griggs’s 2020 campaign, of being behind the attack video. Mallard said Newby had nothing to do with it.

Joyce Griggs at a campaign stop in Liberty County in April. Credit: The Current

Newby, who is Black and heads the Coastal Georgia Minority Chamber of Commerce, says that since she declined to work for Griggs’ campaign this year, the candidate has repeatedly lashed out at her. 

Newby, who now works for the Munroe campaign, said Griggs’ accusations are confounding. “I don’t understand why she’s attacking women of color who are working with Dr. Munroe,” said Newby. “I have no clue.”

On Monday, when The Current sought further clarification of Griggs’ portrayal of her disbarment, she turned aggressive.

“I’m wondering why this keeps coming up and going around,” she said.

She then accused The Current’s editor in chief, Margaret Coker, of conspiring with her primary opponents to sabotage her campaign. She again blamed Newby for undermining her.

At events with district voters, meanwhile, Griggs exudes an air of confidence and a passion for the people of Coastal Georgia. She insists her clients never complained about her work. Furthermore, she declares, she has nothing to hide about her past legal travails. 

“If anybody has any more questions, they can ask me,” she says. “My phone number is (912) 316-6009.” 

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...