ATLANTA—A Catoosa County judge on trial for judicial misconduct admitted that he smoked marijuana, but denied abusing his authority while on the bench.
Using marijuana is “no different than any judge speeding or any judge driving under the influence. It’s a misdemeanor,” Catoosa County Magistrate Anthony Peters told the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission on Thursday.
In the State Appeals Court, Peters faced the commission — a five-member panel that rules on complaints of ethical misconduct by state judges — on 13 counts of misconduct, including smoking marijuana. The JQC charged him in February, but most of the allegations are dated between 2008 and 2010.
“You’ll find he didn’t do all these allegations,” Chris Townley, Peters’ attorney, said in opening statements. “He did the ones he admitted, but he is regretful.”
The prosecution presented its case Thursday. The commission’s investigation team is led by Joe Hendricks Jr., a hired prosecutor from the Appalachian Judicial Circuit.
Hendricks grilled Peters about his ability to go back to the bench and be respected after being charged with so many violations.
“You understand it’s more than just about you; it’s about the public’s confidence in you?” Hendricks asked.
“I’m not the same person,” Peters said.
When Peters was shown a video of himself on television in 2010, joking about teenagers using drugs, the judge just shook his head.
“It’s something I’m not proud of,” Peters said, his voice choking up. “It disturbs me.”
The JQC also called several witnesses to discuss outbursts in which Peters allegedly abused his power.
Ringgold Police Chief Dan Bilbrey said that in February 2009 Peters used his position to try to get several people arrested during a confrontation at a family member’s home.
Then a Catoosa County detective, Bilbrey responded to the call. He testified that when he said he wasn’t going to arrest two boys whom Peters wanted taken into custody, Peters began yelling.
Bilbrey said Peters started to curse and said, “You’re going to arrest these [expletive].”
Peters said he didn’t threaten the boys and said he couldn’t remember if he identified himself as a judge when talking to Bilbrey.
“I’m telling the truth,” Peters argued under questioning from the commission.
Peters also is accused of pointing a gun to his head while in Catoosa Magistrate Vick Wells’ office and saying to the judge and others in the room, “I’m not scared, are you?”
“That never happened,” Peters testified Thursday.
Peters’ attorney, Townley, said in cross-examination that the judge’s attitude was related to strong pain medication he took to treat several injuries, including back problems. The judge also was dealing with emotional trauma after his father’s suicide in 2005, Townley said, noting that Peters found the body.
Two fellow judges and Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers testified they noticed a change in Peters over the last two years and he slowly became unpredictable.
Magistrate John Gass said he noticed that Peters and their boss, Chief Magistrate Donald “Sonny” Caldwell, started to argue more, sometimes loudly and in front of other employees.
“It made everyone in the office very uneasy,” Gass said.
Other court employees testified that Peters’ behavior became so unpredictable they were afraid.
“I was terrified that he was going to hurt someone,” said Beverly Walker, Catoosa magistrate clerk. “He was very angry at Judge Caldwell.”
Becky Bates, another magistrate clerk, said Peters confronted her one day and asked if she was afraid of him. He had shaved his head.
“‘Look at you, Anthony, with your head shaved and your eyebrows shaved. You look like a serial killer,’” she told him.
But under cross-examination, Walker and Bates admitted they never heard nor saw Peters threaten anyone.
Townley argued that Caldwell’s decision to run again for office triggered Peters’ animosity. Peters had assumed that Caldwell was going to retire and that he would be in line for the chief magistrate’s job.
Townley also argued that Peters was set up last year when he was handcuffed and hauled out of the Catoosa County Courthouse.
On June 26, Caldwell met with the other three magistrates and asked Gass to use a camera — hidden in a pen — to record the conversation, testimony showed Thursday.
The video, which was shown in court, shows Caldwell telling Peters he must work a special night shift from 3 to 11 p.m. Peters refuses to work it. Caldwell raises his voice and points at Peters, saying, “I’m putting you on administrative leave.”
Peters answers that Caldwell didn’t have the right to do that.
Caldwell left the room flustered and, in later testimony Thursday, witnesses said he told a clerk official to push the “panic button,” a silent alarm, to summon law enforcement.
Minutes later, local and state police arrived, handcuffed Peters and forced him to leave.
The defense case will begin today at 10 a.m.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...