Judges on leave but not suspended after Catoosa fracas

Judges on leave but not suspended after Catoosa fracas

June 19th, 2010 by Andy Johns in News

Two Catoosa County magistrate judges involved in a fracas Wednesday weren't at work Friday, but they haven't been suspended, either.

The chairman of Georgia's Judicial Qualifications Commission, which oversees judges' conduct, said there hasn't been time to investigate what happened between Magistrate Anthony Peters and Chief Magistrate Sonny Caldwell.

The two got into a confrontation Wednesday in the Catoosa County Courthouse and Judge Peters was taken from the building in handcuffs, then held in Catoosa County Jail before being released without charges.

On Monday, Judge Peters was removed as Ringgold city judge.

On Friday, Judge Peters characterized being taken into custody as being "kidnapped under Georgia law."

"In the end, the truth will come out," he said.

His lawyer had told him Thursday that he was suspended from his job, he said. He tried to collect personal belongings from his office Friday morning but was turned away, he said.

Judge Caldwell could not be reached Friday for comment.

Ben Easterlin, chairman of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, said he couldn't comment on any specifics of what's happening in Catoosa County. But he said the commission must investigate before it takes any kind of action and the judges in question would have a right to a trial before any suspension is leveled.

"Generally speaking, for someone to get suspended, there is a whole a process to go through," he said.

On Friday, Catoosa County Attorney Chad Young described the two judges' status as "voluntarily taking a leave" while the situation is sorted out.

Earlier, Mr. Young said the County Commission and Mr. Easterlin's group were investigating the faceoff and a GBI spokesman said his agency was looking into two other incidents involving Judge Peters.

Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press - The Catoosa County Courthouse, on Nashville Street in Ringgold, is the venue for this week's justice turmoil.

Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press...

"We're hoping to hear from (the Judicial Qualifications Commission) next week so we can get some guidance on which way to go," Mr. Young said.

The commission will decide whether to sanction or discipline either judge, he said.

Deputy Magistrate Clerk Ginger Posey said magistrate court was open during regular hours Friday and should be open on its regular 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule next week.

Greg Ramey, special agent in charge of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Calhoun office, said Friday that any evidence developed by the investigation would be discussed with the county district attorney's office .

"In the event the allegations are not substantiated, then our case becomes closed," he said.

The magistrates' spat is not the first black eye for judges in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, records show.

In May, Chattooga County Superior Court Judge Kristina Cook Connelly Graham was publicly reprimanded for using profanity and accusatory language toward law enforcement agents.

The reprimand stemmed from a 2009 complaint by GBI Director Vernon Keenan, who said she attacked the credibility and character of law enforcement agents.

Also in Chattooga County, former State Court Judge Carlton Vines was charged with unlawful possession of ballots, conspiracy to commit election fraud and making false statements in connection with his 2006 election campaign.

He was losing that election by more than 150 votes to Sam Finster, but when absentee ballots were counted, he won by 125 votes.

His first trial in 2009 ended in a mistrial. Prosecutors then dropped the case when Mr. Vines resigned and agreed not to seek election to the office again.

In September, the state Election Board referred the case against Mr. Vines to the state Attorney General's office.

Attorney General spokesman Russ Willard said Friday that the office and the secretary of state still have the case open and are continuing an investigation.


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