published Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

Georgia Judge Sam Finster loses seat on Chattooga bench

Last year, Georgia Judge Sam Finster said he did not know that he was breaking the law.

Finster, who presides over Chattooga County's State Court, allowed defendants to pay court costs on cases that were never prosecuted. But court officials can't charge money unless a defendant is found guilty.

On Wednesday, the day after Finster lost his bid for re-election, he blamed a series of Times Free Press stories about the illegal practice.

"I am lower than a snake's belly thanks to you," he told a reporter. "This is the end of our conversation."

On Tuesday night, Summerville attorney Jon Dennis won Finster's job by taking about 57 percent of the 2,900 votes cast. Dennis will take over the state court -- which handles some civil cases and lower-level crimes -- at the beginning of next year.

From 2009-13, according to court records, Finster charged 154 defendants about $36,800 in illegal court costs. He was not alone. The two judges on the bench before him charged about $18,000 in illegal court costs to 105 defendants, records show.

After the Times Free Press' series of stories, Chattooga County sent those defendants letters saying they could ask for their money back. As of Wednesday, the county has paid back about $16,000.

Dennis said he did not bring up the illegal court costs situation often during his campaign, though he did mention it when Finster attacked him.

"For many people, it was very important," Dennis said. "When [Finster] said I was inexperienced, I said, 'Well, I'm an inexperienced attorney who will not be charging illegal fees.'"

Dennis credited his victory to his active campaigning on Facebook. A former high school English teacher, Dennis wrote long messages on his social media page, telling his 2,000 friends why he should be judge.

When fewer than 3,000 people vote, Dennis said, an online audience of 2,000 can swing an election.

Already, there seems to be bad blood between the current state court judge and the future one. When all the votes were counted, according to those at the Chattooga County Courthouse on Tuesday night, Finster left by a side door and drove to the Sky 21 TV station.

Jimmy Holbrook, who was hosting election coverage, recalled this is what Finster announced on the air:

"I lost. It's over. I'm done."

On Wednesday, Dennis said, he ran into Finster at the Dirt Town Deli, where both men had gone for breakfast. He said Finster shook the hand of another man at the restaurant, then looked at Dennis.

"By no means will I shake your hand," Finster said, according to Dennis.

On Wednesday, the next state court judge said he wants to fix his relationship with the current judge.

"He's got six more months," Dennis said. "I want the transition to go smooth. I'm at a loss about why he's angry with me. We've always gotten along until I decided to run. I don't get it."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@times freepress.com.

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