Former ethics official says he wants law to cover legal fees for judges accused of misconduct

·3 min read

A former state ethics official tells Channel 2 Action News that he’d like to see a state law that clearly allows local governments to pick up the legal fees of judges who are accused of ethical misconduct.

Cobb County attorney Robert Ingram — a one-time chairman of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, Georgia’s judicial watchdog — discussed the issue with Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher because of the pending ethics case against Douglas County Probate Judge Christina Peterson.

The JQC has filed 50 ethics charges against Peterson, and the Georgia Supreme Court is considering the JQC’s request to suspend her immediately, as the commission contends she is a threat to the integrity of the judiciary.

Meanwhile, Douglas County taxpayers have already spent $25,000 on legal fees defending the judge against the state charges.

Belcher asked Michael Coleman, Douglas County’s chief lawyer, for the specific authorization in state law or the county charter that allows the expenditure of taxpayer money to defend a public official against charges of misconduct.

In an email, Coleman responded that the county commission has the authority to run the county. He claimed that in order to avoid catastrophic losses, the county bought an insurance policy to cover legal expenses, which Coleman said is legal. Thus far, Douglas County has picked up the $25,000 deductible required by the policy.

Belcher then sought the opinion of former JQC chair Robert Ingram, who is fully behind what Douglas County is doing for Judge Peterson.

“In almost every lawsuit, you have a winner and a loser. Winners are happy. Losers are mad. Losers file complaints very often against the judge,” Ingram said.

He acknowledges he doesn’t know the details of the 50 charges now pending against the judge, who was first elected in 2020.

Laid out in the JQC complaint on file at the state Supreme Court, the charges include repeated misuse of social media and allowing people into the Douglas County courthouse on a weekend over the express objections of the sheriff.

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Records reviewed by Channel 2 Action News show the JQC was investigating the way the judge used social media before she was actually sworn into office. But the specific charges against Peterson matter less to Ingram than his belief that judges are too easily targeted.

“I spent eight years on the JQC, and I can tell you the majority of the complaints that were filed were frivolous, and they were filed by former litigants who lost before a judge or who had a bad experience with the judge,” Ingram said.

Belcher asked if that won’t guarantee that some judges who have acted improperly will be defended at taxpayers’ cost.

“That’s correct,” Ingram replied, adding that he believes it’s worth the price. “On occasion, you’re going to have a judge who has a JQC complaint with merit filed against them, and they’re going to get a defense. That doesn’t mean they’re going to win the case.”

“I would not extend it to criminal investigations. I think that goes too far,” Ingram continued.

He said in criminal cases, a solicitor or district attorney has to vet the charges before they are formally filed.

But complaints to the JQC go through a similar process. The staff for the commission’s investigative panel investigates the accusation, and then the panel votes privately before deciding whether a complaint is turned into formal, public charges requiring a settlement or a public trial for the judge.

Chuck Boring, the current director of the JQC, didn’t provide a statement, but the commission clearly sees the Peterson case as anything but frivolous.

The commission has filed two groups of charges against her and twice asked the state Supreme Court to suspend her immediately due to its assertion that she is a threat to the judicial system.

The court denied the first request. The second request was filed July 19 and is still awaiting a decision.

Peterson remains in her job as probate judge.

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