Judge Simms opens up about his alcoholism, family, traffic stop

awomack@macon.comNovember 5, 2012 

When Howard Simms slips on his black judge’s robe Monday, for the first time in six weeks, it will be as a man who has owned up to his flaws.

He took his last drink of alcohol Sept. 24.

It was a Monday, two days after being stopped at a license checkpoint in west Bibb County, where a breath test he took registered 0.083, just over the legal limit.

Simms, a Bibb County Superior Court judge, presided over court hearings that Monday.

He released a statement the following day saying he was going to rehab for alcohol abuse.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Simms said counseling has helped him come to terms with a nearly two-decade-long drinking problem that many nights included him imbibing to the point of passing out.

Simms said a close friend and mentor’s suicide in 1993 was the crossroads in his life where drinking stopped being just for fun. It became a medicine.

“It became to me an almost perfect anesthetic,” he said. “I could avoid dealing with things by getting drunk enough not to have to confront them.”

***

Simms said he and his wife made plans for him to enter a treatment facility two years ago after Macon police stopped him on Vineville Avenue while driving his government car. Police had gotten a call about an erratic driver and when an officer stopped Simms, she smelled alcohol in the car.

The officer didn’t test Simms for alcohol, but instead drove him to Freedom Park where his son was playing baseball.

The June 3, 2010, traffic stop happened three months after Simms, then district attorney, had announced plans to resign and run for a judgeship.

The three-man race for judge went into a runoff, which Simms won.

“Then it was Thanksgiving and then it was Christmas and everything was good. ... So I just put it off and said, ‘No, I’m fine. It was the stress,’ ’’ Simms said. “Well, that was a lie.”

Two years passed.

During them, Simms presided over a couple of vehicular homicide cases involving drunken drivers.

While handling the cases, he said he thought: “There but by the grace of God goes me.”

Simms sentenced a man in a vehicular homicide case to five years in prison Sept. 21, the day before he was stopped at the license checkpoint on Lamar Road. The man had a blood-alcohol level of 0.221 on the night when he ran down a man who was walking on Hall Street.

At the checkpoint the next day, Simms said he didn’t ask for any favors.

He gave his driver’s license to the first deputy he encountered. The deputy said he smelled alcohol in Simms’ truck. He told the deputy he hadn’t been drinking, Simms said.

After parking on the side of the road, another deputy came over and asked his name in a tone that Simms took to mean that the deputy either recognized him or thought he should know him. That’s when he said his name was Howard Simms, Judge Simms, he said.

During the stop, a deputy showed him the breath test result.

“I could see 0.08, but I really couldn’t make out what it said after that,” he said.

He admits he likely got preferential treatment in not being arrested, but he said he’s not gotten off scot-free. Unlike others snared at the checkpoints, Simms was the subject of news stories and associated comments for weeks.

“I may not have gotten a DUI, but I paid a price which I deserved because I was driving after I had been drinking,” Simms said. “My family paid maybe a higher price than I did in shame and embarrassment and humiliation.”

Although he regrets what happened to the two deputies disciplined for policy violations related to the traffic stop, Simms said he doesn’t regret the incident because it pushed him to seek help.

He decided to enter rehab on the following Monday after word started trickling out.

Simms said he told his wife, “I’m tired of lying about it. I’m tired of worrying about somebody finding out.”

***

During his two weeks of in-patient rehab, Simms told a therapist the story of how he heard gunshots Dec. 28, 1993, when then-District Attorney Willis Sparks committed suicide.

Simms and other prosecutors had been in a nearby room when the shots rang out. Simms was the one who found his friend and mentor bleeding on a bathroom floor still alive.

“He was at that point in my life, outside my father, the man I admired most in the world and that I most wanted to be like,” Simms said.

In the years since then, he has kept file folders in his desk that contain a score sheet from one of the weekly chess games he played with Sparks, news clippings from the suicide and his statement to police.

After leaving the hospital that December night, Simms went home and “just got hammered drunk.”

“It was the only way I could go to sleep,” he said.

Then he did it again the next night and a pattern emerged.

“When I had a problem, I drank it away,” Simms said.

Although Simms denies ever drinking on the job, he said there were nights when he’d stay up as late as 4 a.m. drinking.

“Obviously, I would go in some days probably smelling like a distillery. That’s just because I was drinking so much,” he said.

He went to Alcoholics Anonymous a few times, but wasn’t able to address the core issues of why he was drinking. He also encountered people at the meetings who asked for his help getting out of legal problems at the courthouse.

Colleagues tried to intervene and persuade him to get help.

“I knew that I had a problem. Admitting to yourself and actually taking ownership of the fact that you’ve got a problem is extraordinarily difficult, especially for someone who was in the position was in. I was the elected district attorney,” Simms said. “In my mind that was an admission of weakness and I didn’t want to be weak.”

For years, he quit drinking every Sunday night, lying in bed thinking of promises he’d broken.

One that often came to mind was not taking his son fishing. He bought his son a pole, but didn’t string it with line because he was drinking, he said.

Simms said he’s missed a lot of his children’s lives.

He’s uncomfortable looking at family photos and videos.

Although he knows he took many of them, he doesn’t remember.

The judge said his priority now is to repair his relationship with his family while completing six more months of out-patient rehab.

“I’ve done a lot of damage,” Simms said, with tears welling in his eyes. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

He looks forward to the future.

***

Simms said he’s not sure how he’ll be received Monday when he goes back to work although he’s gotten support from a lot of people.

He plans to make an appointment to talk with the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission. He notified the commission -- the state agency tasked with investigating judges’ conduct -- of his stop at the license checkpoint and his plan to enter rehab in September.

Simms said he doesn’t know what to expect, but he wants to remain a judge.

“It’s a job that I love,” he said.

The judge said he expects he’ll have a different perspective on the bench as a result of his experience.

“If I were being judged by somebody for something I had done, I wouldn’t want a self-righteous person who thinks of themselves as perfect,” he said. “I would want a flawed man who has addressed his flaws and realizes that not only are other people flawed, but that he is.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.

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