I want you to finish your two years remaining on your term and to qualify for re-election — if you have the stamina and resolve! There is nothing so interesting as a Northwest Georgia election where politics for generations has been a 'blood sport.'
After a political rival threatened a "blood sport," a sitting North Georgia judge faces a contested race for the first time in more than two decades.
Melissa Hise, 49, announced last week she will run against Ralph Van Pelt Jr., a Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit superior court judge since 1996. Hise denied her run has anything to do with the fight between Van Pelt and one of the country's most famous lawyers; she said she simply wanted to provide voters with a fresh face.
But judicial races are rarely contested in the region. Since Gov. Zell Miller appointed Van Pelt to the bench, no incumbent in the circuit has faced competition. (Van Pelt said the last contested race with an incumbent was in 1990.) Seventeen months ago, however, attorney Bobby Lee Cook told Van Pelt to get ready for a race.
"I want you to finish your two years remaining on your term and to qualify for re-election — if you have the stamina and resolve!" Cook wrote in a letter to Van Pelt in October 2016. "There is nothing so interesting as a Northwest Georgia election where politics for generations has been a 'blood sport.'"
Cook said he supports Hise's candidacy but did not lobby for her to run. Van Pelt doesn't have any evidence to disprove that, though he is skeptical of Cook's statement.
"As a general rule," he said, "I don't believe in coincidences."
The backdrop to this fight? Van Pelt said Cook's daughter, Judge Kristina Cook Graham, was not qualified to be the circuit's chief judge. In a letter to Graham in October 2016, Van Pelt wrote that she spent too much time away from the circuit in Chattanooga, didn't show up for work enough and had a nasty habit of berating courtroom employees and lawyers. Van Pelt added that he had reported her alleged outbursts to the state's judicial oversight board, though his complaints never resulted in any public discipline.
Graham never publicly responded to Van Pelt's letter. An outside judge later ruled she could keep her position as the circuit's chief. But Van Pelt's letter fortified divisions in the circuit. Cook called Van Pelt a "snitch," and said he was sexist. Cook's law firm could no longer practice in front of Van Pelt. Already fragile, Van Pelt's relationship with Graham also ended.
"It will be impossible for us to be in the same room," Van Pelt wrote to her.
Though both sides deny they discussed a campaign before Hise made a decision on her own, there is a connection between Cook and Hise. They work down the street from each other in Summerville, a city of 4,400 people. Hise works for Albert Palmour, whose father used to practice with Cook.
Earlier this month, Graham sent out a news release naming Hise the circuit's Americans with Disabilities Act contact, meaning she is responsible for ensuring equal access to North Georgia's courts. Sutton Connelly, Graham's son who practices in Cook's law firm, has also invited people to like Hise's campaign page on Facebook. Connelly declined to comment for this story.
Cook, who has practiced since 1949, has a reputation as a power broker in the region. According to the American Bar Association, he has represented Rockefellers, Carnegies and moonshiners. His defense of a Savannah socialite in a murder trial was portrayed in the film "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." He also credits himself with securing Van Pelt's appointment to the bench 22 years ago.
Hise could have run against Judge Don Thompson, whose term is up this year. But she said Thompson will help move the judicial circuit forward. Appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2016, Thompson started to oversee the circuit's new drug court last year. That is a rehabilitative program that aims to keep non-violent, addicted offenders out of jail.
"Judge Van Pelt has held his seat for quite a while," Hise said. "If you're looking for a change and something different, you're looking at his seat."
Van Pelt said he has never resisted change in the circuit. He added that his experience makes him more qualified. Before taking the bench, he worked as a private lawyer and the circuit's district attorney. Though he hasn't kept a tally, he says he has worked hundreds of jury trials. Hise said she has never been the lead attorney on any jury trials.
"Making an inexperienced mistake can cost taxpayer money and lots of grief to people involved in a case," Van Pelt said.
The Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit covers Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties. The election for Van Pelt's seat is May 22.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.