Douglas County Probate Judge Christina Peterson has been charged with four counts of violating the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct.
The charges, brought by the Investigative Panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), center around social media posts made by Peterson last year before she took office.
The JQC writes in its formal charges that Peterson’s conduct “amounts to willful misconduct in office and is prejudicial to the administration of justice, bringing her judicial office into disrepute.”
In what is seen by some legal experts as the most serious charge, Peterson used her “officialchristinaj” Instagram account to ask for money on her birthday in an Aug. 26, 2020, post.
The JQC writes in the formal charges that Peterson “posted a picture of herself wearing a ‘birthday girl’ tiara and a dress while sitting at a lounge/bar/club” with a comment that read in part: “If anyone feels like sharing their quarantine wealth, cashapp $cjpesq.”
Peterson did not respond to a message from the Sentinel seeking comment on the charges.
However, in a Feb. 19, 2021, appearance before the JQC, Peterson told the commission the cash app post was made to her “private personal page” and “for [her] friends,” and that “I was wondering on that day why I was getting Cash App from people I didn’t know. And so I noticed — I realized — somebody contacted me in my inbox and say they are posting this on Douglas County page and things like that.
The JQC charges point out that the cash app post was shared by a citizen on a Douglas County citizen group on Facebook with a message that, “Our future probate judge wants money on cashapp.”
Katie Powers, a former superior court judge and state court judge in Clayton County, now serves as director of advocacy at the Mercer University School of Law.
Powers said the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct applies both to judges and to judicial candidates.
“Judges take an oath to be impartial,” Powers said. “And when you solicit funds it brings into question your ability to remain impartial. From just a simple perspective, not from a legal expert perspective, if you were to go to local attorneys and say, “Hey, give me $500 for my favorite charity,’ a local attorney is going to feel that they are obligated to give you that either a) to avoid some sort of wrath potentially or b) to gain some sort of favor.”
In addition to the cash app post, Peterson is also accused by the JQC of using her “judicial status” to promote events at restaurants in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta on her Instagram account.
On March, 12, 2020, the JQC alleges she posted a flyer for a “Black and Educated” event at Rose Bar that included the hashtag #judgetobe in a comment with the flyer. In a post on Nov. 9, 2020, the JQC alleges Peterson used her Instagram account to promote “Wine Bottle Wednesdays” at Tribeca restaurant with a comment that included several references to her judicial status.
When asked about the “Rose Bar” post, Peterson told the JQC: “[t]hat was back before COVID” and that “[she] wasn’t even a candidate at the time.” On the “Wine Bottle Wednesdays” post, Peterson told the JQC that, “[i]t wasn’t a bar night. It was a professional night,” and she further added, “[i]t wasn’t a bar night. Even though it says wine bottle Wednesday, nobody is having wine. It’s professionals gathering.”
The final count centers on a video the JQC says was available on Peterson’s Twitter account from March 5, 2020, to Dec. 29, 2020, which portrayed her in a moustache with a caption on the video reading “WORD OF THE DAY: HOMELESS-SEXUAL.”
According to the JQC, the video shows Peterson “speaking with a strong southern accent, acting like she is a person giving an individual by the name of ‘Ya-Niqua’ relationship advice.” The JQC quotes Peterson’s character in the video telling ‘Ya-Niqua’ at one point, “[t]hat man says he’s in love with you ... that man will do anything for a place to stay … you made that bed with that homeless-sexual.” During the video, the JQC points out Peterson “also makes reference to the male genitals, specifically, the African-American male genitals.”
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.
Ironically, it will likely be those Supreme Court justices that decide her fate.
She has until Aug. 16 to answer the charges by the JQC. Powers said from there, the case will 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.