Douglas County Probate Judge Christina Peterson is facing more ethics charges for allegedly violating the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct.
A total of 18 formal charges were filed Tuesday by the Investigative Panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC).
The charges are on top of the four counts brought by the JQC earlier this year related to social media posts she made before she took office. Peterson filed a formal answer to the earlier charges asking that they be dismissed.
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 Hambrick, was not.
Despite a budget shortfall last year that led the Board of Commissioners to increase taxes on property owners by 27.8%, the BOC bumped Peterson’s salary up to $124,798, more than $28,000 more than Hamrick made. With fees she is allowed to collect by law, Peterson will likely earn more than Douglas County superior court judges and state Supreme Court justices.
“During her brief judicial tenure, Judge Peterson has failed to perform her judicial and administrative duties competently, failed to cooperate with other judges and court officials in the administration of court business, and continues to fail to respect and comply with the law,” the JQC said in the formal charges filed Sept. 28 in the office of the Supreme Court of Georgia.
Peterson’s attorney, Lester Tate III, issued a statement to the Sentinel via email on her behalf after the latest round of charges.
“Judge Peterson is the first elected African American judge in Douglas County,” Tate wrote. “She received her first JQC complaint, filed by political enemies, the day before she took the oath of office. Since that time, her enemies have continued to file complaints at a rate of about one per month. Some cite things that occurred years and years before she became a judge and others are the pettiest of grievances, concerning things like social media postings. Most incredible, however, is the JQC’s assertion — one clearly contradicted by the Georgia Constitution — that they have cradle to grave jurisdiction over anyone that has ever worn a robe for anything they have ever done. Although Judge Peterson, like all judges, is human and fallible, I (have) every confidence that she has acted in accordance with the Code of Judicial Conduct at all times during her service to the people of Douglas County.”
Among the most serious of the new charges are allegations that Peterson violated courthouse security protocol and disregarded instructions from Douglas County Sheriff’s Capt. Trent Wilson by allowing seven civilians who hadn’t been screened by deputies into the building after-hours on a Saturday.
Peterson had planned to officiate a wedding inside the courthouse on Saturday, April 17, and had arranged for the three deputies that are called for in the security protocol to be at the courthouse at 11 a.m. that day, according to the JQC.
Wilson, who is the captain over courthouse security, was notified that Peterson and her wedding party didn’t show up and the deputies left around 12:45 p.m. Wilson called Peterson, according to the JQC, and told her the wedding party had not shown up while the deputies were there.
Peterson told Wilson the wedding was planned for later in the day. But Wilson told Peterson the deputies had shown up at the correct time per the schedule and that they would not be returning, according to the JQC.
Wilson made clear to Peterson “she was not to allow civilians to enter the courthouse” because there were no deputies to conduct security screenings, according to the JQC.
Peterson told Wilson “she was going to do what her wedding party wanted to do,” according to the charges. The JQC said Wilson then reiterated to Peterson not to allow civilians to enter the courthouse.
When Peterson got to the courthouse later that day, the JQC writes that she discovered an off-duty deputy, who is also a pastor, preparing to perform a separate wedding.
Peterson called Douglas County Sheriff Tim Pounds to tell him about the situation, and Pounds advised that allowing or taking civilians into the courthouse would be a violation of the courthouse’s security protocol, according to the charges.
Peterson told Pounds the deputy-pastor was at the courthouse and could perform the security screenings, according to the charges. Peterson then proceeded to allow seven civilians into the front entrance of the courthouse, including three that were not with her wedding party, according to the charges.
The JQC writes that the deputy-pastor was not present for the entry of the seven civilians and he didn’t conduct security screenings because he was off-duty and not authorized to do so.
“The first three civilians walked freely through the courthouse without an escort,” the JQC writes in its charges.
Peterson conducted the wedding ceremony inside the courthouse and the wedding party left.
‘How are you even a judge?’
Afterward, Superior Court Judge David T. Emerson, chief judge of the Douglas Judicial Circuit, was notified about Peterson letting the civilians in after being told not to by Wilson, according to the charges. Emerson advised the sheriff’s office to suspend Peterson’s after-hours access to the courthouse.
Once she realized her after-hours access had been suspended, Peterson sent Pounds and Emerson multiple emails, the JQC writes.
According to the charges, in one email Peterson asks Emerson: “How are you even a judge?” Peterson continued in the email, accusing Emerson of “harassment” and calling his actions “prejudicial” and “borderline racist.” She also told Emerson she prayed his “soul is saved.” And she wrote: “Please retire as this county has outgrown your spirit.”
On April 21, the JQC writes that Peterson had a member of her staff send “multiple frivolous requests” for “Judge after hours courthouse access” that would have required three deputies be at the courthouse “unnecessarily” after normal work hours.
Peterson’s after-hours access was restored April 22 after steps were taken by Pounds and Emerson to address her “violation of the courthouse’s security protocol,” according to the charges.
The JQC charges also allege Peterson activated the emergency panic button in her office after a deputy who escorts her to and from her office and courtroom was late on May 11, leading to courthouse operations being “disrupted” and sheriff’s office personnel rushing to her office “assuming there was an emergency.”
Threat to sue county
In another incident, at the end of April 2021, the JQC writes that Peterson sent an email titled “NOTICE OF INTENT TO SUE” to the county’s director of information services and the county administrator after an issue with her new case management software. In that email, she also accuses recipients of “obstruction” and writes “you will be sanctioned accordingly for noncompliance.”
Other charges relate to an attempt by former JQC Chief Investigator Lance Alford and Deputy Director Courtney Veal to get copies of marriage applications and certificates from the Probate Court of Douglas County on April 22, 2021.
Alford and Veal were advised by a clerk in the probate office that Peterson was not in her office and that the judge had a policy that requests be made in writing with an explanation of why the records were needed, according to the charges. They were told Peterson would review the written request and determine if the records would be provided, according to the JQC.
When Alford and Veal revised their request to simply view the documents, which were public records, they were again told by the clerk they would still need to follow Peterson’s policy of submitting a written request.
Five of the 18 charges are related to a lawsuit Peterson filed against her homeowners’ association in 2017 before she was elected probate judge. Peterson filed the suit on behalf of herself and nine of her neighbors, according to the charges.
Nine months after filing the lawsuit, she sent opposing lawyers an offer to settle the case for $70,000. The charges allege that Peterson failed to disclose the details of the settlement offer to her “plaintiff-clients” and failed to respond to requests made by one of the clients for information on the settlement.
The insurer for the HOA, Nationwide Insurance, agreed to the $70,000 settlement on Feb. 2, 2018. When asked by the opposing lawyer whether Nationwide should disburse the settlement funds to each of the plaintiffs or Peterson, she “directed him to send the entire check to her.”
“To date, Judge Peterson has failed to promptly distribute settlement funds to each of her former clients,” the JQC writes.
Peterson is also accused of “making false and misleading statements” to the JQC about whether she was told at a training forum she could still be a volunteer advocate at the Adoptive and Foster Parent Association of Georgia. Peterson said she was told by the Probate Council she could continue serving. But the charges allege that Peterson had actually been told at the training session she should discontinue her service as an advocate.
Peterson has until Oct. 28 to answer the latest charges. From there, the case will go before a Hearing Panel of the JQC, which will make a recommendation to the Supreme Court of Georgia either for sanctions or dismissal of the case.
Sentinel reporter Derrick Mahone contributed to this article.