The Douglas County taxpayers are helping Probate Judge Christina Peterson with legal expenses she has incurred as a result of multiple ethics charges from the Judicial Qualifications Commission.
The Board of Commissioners agreed to reimburse Peterson for $10,000 in legal expenses behind closed doors in an executive session meeting on Sept. 13, District 4 Commissioner Ann Jones Guider told the Sentinel.
Records obtained by the Sentinel via an Open Records Request show the county made a $10,000 check payment to Peterson on Sept. 16 for “Legal — Retainer Reimbursement.”
S. Lester Tate III, a Cartersville attorney, is representing Peterson in complaints filed by the JQC this year.
Guider said there was a consensus of at least three of the five commissioners in the executive session to provide the reimbursement to Peterson. Guider said she did not agree to the $10,000 payment.
In September, the JQC filed 18 formal charges, including allegations Peterson violated courthouse security and misled her neighbors in a dispute with her homeowners’ association before she became a judge. Prior to that the JQC filed four formal charges related to social media posts made by Peterson.
In a filing last month, the panel raised additional concerns that Peterson allegedly jailed a citizen who was trying to correct her marriage license.
Tate, her attorney, in formal responses to the JQC charges, writes in part that Peterson denies most of the allegations, that she had the free speech right to make the social media posts, and that the JQC doesn’t have jurisdiction over alleged conduct that took place before she was sworn in as a judge.
The case will now go before the Hearing Panel of the JQC, which will make a recommendation to the Supreme Court of Georgia either for sanctions or dismissal of the case. A final ruling by the Supreme Court isn’t expected until next year.
This isn’t the first time taxpayers have been asked to foot the legal bills for elected officials in recent years. District 2 Commissioner Kelly Robinson racked up more than $170,000 in legal bills last year to settle a federal lawsuit over blocking citizens from his public Facebook page. Taxpayer funds and the county’s insurance were used to cover Robinson’s legal costs.
The BOC voted in an open meeting on April 21, 2020, to settle the initial complaint against Robinson. That settlement included a $2,500 payment to resident Brenda Bohanan and her attorneys.
No such public vote took place for the reimbursement to Peterson.
Attorney David E. Hudson, who serves as general counsel for the Georgia Press Association, said the BOC appears to have violated the state Open Meetings Act by discussing the payment behind closed doors.
Peterson made waves last year when she asked for a raise before being sworn in, citing the fact that she is an attorney and the outgoing probate judge, Hal Hamrick, was not.
Despite a budget shortfall last year that led the Board of Commissioners to increase taxes on property owners by 27.8% in 2020, the BOC bumped Peterson’s salary up to $124,798, more than $28,000 over what Hamrick made. The probate court budget increased from $425,000 under Hamrick in 2020 to $836,396 under Peterson this year.
With fees she is allowed to collect by law, Peterson appears likely to earn well more than Douglas County superior court judges, state Supreme Court justices and even the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Peterson’s recent pay stubs show that she pocketed $14,485 in vital records fees in August, $13,515 in September and $10,625 in October for a total of $38,625. That’s on top of her regular salary of $124,798. If she averages what she made in those three months in vital records fees for the entire year, she would make close to $280,000 total this year.
Douglas County Chief Superior Court Judge David T. Emerson said previously that he and fellow superior court judges William “Beau” McClain and Cynthia C. Adams make about $177,000.
Justices on the state Supreme Court make $179,112 after a 2% raise in 2019, according to the Council of Superior Court Judges of Georgia.
John Roberts, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, makes $258,000.