Georgia Supreme Court removes county probate judge over ethics charges

Georgia’s highest court has ordered the removal of an embattled county probate judge over ethics charges brought by the state’s judicial watchdog agency

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's highest court on Tuesday ordered the removal of an embattled county probate judge over ethics charges brought by the state's judicial watchdog agency.

The Georgia Supreme Court issued an opinion removing Douglas County Probate Judge Christina Peterson from office, effective immediately, and prohibiting her from holding any judicial office in the state for seven years. The high court noted that the Judicial Qualifications Commission found that Peterson “exhibited a pattern of judicial misconduct while in office.”

Peterson, 38, was sworn in as probate judge in December 2020, after winning a contested Democratic primary that year and running unopposed in the November general election. She lost the Democratic primary last month in her bid for reelection. Peterson has been plagued by ethics charges for much of her tenure and, last week, was arrested after she was accused of pushing a police officer during an early-morning scuffle at an Atlanta nightclub.

Less than a year into her four-year term, in September 2021, the Judicial Qualifications Commission filed formal charges against her, alleging violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct. The agency amended the charges in February 2022 and again in July 2022, bringing the total to 50 counts of alleged misconduct. Twenty counts were dismissed before and during a final hearing, leaving an agency panel to address 30 counts.

The hearing panel issued a report in March, finding clear and convincing evidence to support 28 of the counts and that discipline was authorized for 20. It concluded that Peterson should be removed from office.

A phone number for Peterson could not immediately be found and no contact information was listed for her in the online directory of the state bar association.

“Procedurally, I'm pleased that we were able to provide her with a vigorous defense in court, getting numerous counts dismissed and fighting off two motions for interim suspension, even though today we lost the ultimate battle,” said Lester Tate, a lawyer for Peterson in the ethics matter.

The Supreme Court said the most troubling allegation against Peterson had to do with her treatment of a woman who appeared before her while trying to correct an error on her marriage certificate. Peterson held the woman in criminal contempt and imposed the maximum jail term of 20 days and a fine “without explanation or justification,” the panel found.

Peterson is also alleged to have allowed people to enter the county courthouse after hours without ensuring proper security screening and then made unjustified requests for deputies to work overtime at taxpayer expense when her after-hours access was limited as a result, the high court opinion says. She also pressed a panic button in her chambers when the deputy assigned to escort her to court did not arrive on time. Those actions “did not demonstrate the decorum and temperament required of a judge,” the opinion says.

The opinion says the hearing panel also found that Peterson “engaged in hostile exchanges” with people at a meeting of her homeowners association while she had an active lawsuit pending against the association. Peterson also gave false testimony before the hearing panel, the opinion says.

The high court conclude that her “multiple violations” of judicial rules — some of which reflected a “flagrant disregard for the law, court rules, and judicial conduct rules” — as well as a “pattern of violations,” some of them “extremely concerning,” made removal from the bench appropriate.

Separately, Peterson was arrested Thursday outside the Red Martini Restaurant and Lounge in Atlanta's upscale Buckhead neighborhood. An off-duty officer working security went to investigate after hearing a commotion and saw security escorting a woman out of the club, police said in a statement.

As the officer tried to help deescalate the situation, Peterson came over and immediately began screaming at a security guard and the officer, police said. She repeatedly swiped the officer's hands away as he tried to assist the woman being escorted out and pushed the officer in the chest twice, police said.

She was arrested on charges of simple battery against a police officer and obstruction of a law enforcement officer.

At a news conference Friday, two women who said they were there told reporters Peterson was the only one trying to help one of the women as she was being attacked by a man outside the club and that Peterson didn't mean to hit an officer. Peterson's attorney, Marvin Arrington Jr., said police officers may have been confused “in the heat of the moment.”

“As the investigation continues to unfold and more facts come to light, we believe that Judge Christina Peterson will be completely exonerated of these charges,” Arrington said at the news conference.

In excerpts of body camera video released by police, Peterson can be heard yelling obscenities as she tells someone to let a woman go before quickly being handcuffed. Video then shows her in the back of a police car continuing to shout obscenities and refusing to give her name.