Judge Graham back on top in seesaw for power in Northwest Georgia's courts

Judge Graham back on top in seesaw for power in Northwest Georgia's courts

November 15th, 2016 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

RINGGOLD, Ga. — In the seesaw for power in Northwest Georgia's courts, Judge Kristina Cook Graham is back on top.

Grant Brantley, who was brought in to litigate a dispute between Graham and Judge Ralph Van Pelt Jr., ruled Monday morning that Graham has power over Van Pelt. This comes after Graham was appointed to be the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit's chief judge on Oct. 1.

It also comes after Van Pelt and Judge Brian House voted on Oct. 3 to strip Graham of her power. They said there should be a vote among the three judges, and they picked Van Pelt to take the chief judge position. Graham never signed an order that would have recognized Van Pelt as her superior.

"I don't think Judge Van Pelt is holding the job in accordance with the law," Brantley, a judge from Cobb County, announced Monday morning.

Said Graham: "Now we have a judicial resolution on the issue. It's time for the four judges to move forward for the sake of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit."

Van Pelt said: "Judge Brantley reviewed the law as he saw it and decided the matter. I respect the court's ruling."

The Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit consists of four counties: Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker. Likewise, there are four Superior Court judges that oversee the area. And like all circuits in the state, one of those four is considered the chief judge.

(At the time of the vote last month, the circuit only had three judges. Gov. Nathan Deal has since appointed Don Thompson to the bench.)

What does a chief judge actually do? Besides having the title, the chief judge appoints people in the region to various boards, is in charge of the law libraries and requests outside judges to come in when the four judges in the circuit each have a conflict with a particular case — often, when the defendant used to be a police officer or worked in the court system.

Also, while not officially designated, lawyers and judges say that the chief has say over how court cases get scheduled. If cases linger for a long time, the chief could be to blame, although there also could be factors slowing down a particular case that are outside a judge's control.

Van Pelt's attorney, Michael Bowers, argued Monday that the Georgia constitution gives Van Pelt and House the right to vote for who they want to be their chief judge. In this case — a three-person vote — that would be Van Pelt.

"He is the chief judge," Bowers said. "All the talking to the contrary does not change that. It's simple."

Graham's attorney, Emmet Bondurant, said a local law passed in 1992 actually gives her authority. At the time, the Georgia General Assembly added a fourth judge to the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit. In the event that the judges are split over an issue, the General Assembly wrote in the local act, the most experienced judge has final say.

Graham is the most experienced, having been appointed when the General Assembly passed that act. Van Pelt, a former district attorney in the region, was appointed in 1996.

"The senior judge is the decider," Bondurant said. "That judge's decision, contrary to the other two judges, is controlling."

On Sept. 30, Chief Judge Jon "Bo" Wood retired. He appointed Graham to be his replacement. But Van Pelt and House said Graham was not the best person for the position. In a letter to Graham, Van Pelt accused her of skipping work, living outside the circuit and berating court personnel behind closed doors.

Van Pelt told Graham he had been reporting her to the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the agency that investigates misconduct by officials on the bench. The commission reprimanded Graham in 2009 after receiving a recording of her insulting a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent in her office, but she has not been disciplined since — despite Van Pelt's attempts.

Graham was not in court Monday, but her father, attorney Bobby Lee Cook, responded to Van Pelt's letter last month.

"Your lasting legacy will be that you have attempted to destroy in this Circuit the goodwill and trust that lawyers and the public should enjoy," he wrote.

Van Pelt said after Monday's hearing that he and Bowers have not decided whether to appeal Brantley's ruling.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@times freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.