DOUGLASVILLE, Ga. - The least experienced judge at one of the lower classes of court in Georgia is due to make a lot of money in 2021.
More than the governor. More than the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. More than Georgia’s two U.S. senators.
And Douglas County Probate Judge Christina Peterson was just elected last year.
A probate judge typically handles wills and vital records processing for births and death certificates and marriage licenses. They rarely hold trials.
Peterson is an attorney. Her predecessor was not. So when she took office a year ago, Peterson convinced the Douglas County Commission to include a $36,688 supplement to her state salary.
That set the judge’s pay at $127,798.
Like many other counties, the Douglas County Probate Office handles wills, weapons permits, marriage licenses, birth and death certificates. They rarely hold trials. (2020)
Commissioner Ann Jones Guider voted no.
"I said ‘Why are you giving her a supplement?’" Guider explained. "And they said ‘We give it to the other judges.’ I said ‘The other judges don’t make fees.’"
By law, the probate judge is allowed to keep at least some of those vital records fees for birth and death certificates.
The fee for each record is $25. Former probate judge Hal Hamrick kept half of the death certificate money because he said he personally signed each one. He did no work for the birth certificate processing.
The rest of the fees went to the county’s general fund.
The previous probate judge kept half of only the death certificate fees. Hal Hamrick said he signed each certificate but did no work on the birth certificates so he didn't feel comfortable keeping those fees. (2020)
Combined with his salary, Hamrick made around $110,000 each year.
But Peterson decided to keep all the vital records money.
The FOX 5 I-Team analyzed the amount of fees she already collected in the first 10 months of this year.
At the current rate, combined with her salary, Peterson is projected to make around $280,000 in her first year in office.
She can do that because Douglas County is one of the few in metro Atlanta that doesn’t place a cap on how much fee money the probate judge can keep.
Gwinnett, Henry, and Fayette County set the cap at $7,500 each year. In Rockdale, it’s $15,000. Any fee money above those caps is sent to the county treasurer.
Henry County commissioners capped the vital records fees their probate judge can keep. It's $7500, just like Gwinnett and Fayette County. Douglas County has never set a limit.
This year, Peterson is expected to pocket $158,000 in fees alone.
Her attorney Lester Tate issued a statement defending her compensation.
"Judge Peterson's salary has the LEAST effect on taxpayers' money whether locally within the county or the state as she is the LOWEST (taxpayer funds) PAID Judge in the county from county or state funds," read the statement.
It may not be tax dollars, but someone is paying those $25 vital records fees.
"I definitely think that all fees should be capped," said Guider. "Good grief, you could be a millionaire and work for the government!"
We asked multiple times through her spokesman whether Commission Chairman Romona Jackson Jones had an opinion about capping the fees.
She never answered the question.
Montavious and PJ Skelton got their marriage license in Douglas County in 2016. Five years later, PJ would wind up ordered to jail by Judge Peterson after trying to correct her father's name on the certificate.
Meanwhile, Peterson remains the subject of multiple allegations of judicial misconduct filed by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the state organization in charge of investigating judges.
One of those allegations involved her decision to order a woman jailed in August for contempt of court.
"We didn’t know you could go to jail for this," said the woman's husband Montavious Skelton.
He and his wife PJ were married in 2016. They got their marriage license in Douglas County.
PJ never knew the name of her father, so on the marriage license application, the native of Thailand wrote down the name of the uncle who raised her.
But this year — after learning her father’s real name — PJ contacted the probate court because she thought she needed to let them know, too.
Judge Peterson responded by saying they had to appear in court. So the couple got a babysitter for their 4-year-old daughter and drove to Douglasville from their Henry County home.
No one from Peterson’s office advised them they might need an attorney.
Instead, Peterson found PJ in contempt of court for "lying under oath and providing false information to the Court" back in 2016.
Montavious Skelton said he was told he had to pay $500 cash to get his wife out of jail. He ran down to the courthouse ATM, but his wife still wound up spending two nights behind bars.
The judge ordered her taken immediately to jail and advised Montavious if he wanted his wife released quickly he’d have to pay $500.
That’s $500 in cash. Montavious said they wouldn’t even take his debit card. He ran down to the courthouse ATM to get the money.
His wife was finally released after spending two nights in jail.
The FOX 5 I-Team filed an Open Records request to see what happened to that $500. Our request was denied.
Peterson’s attorney wrote to us that it was his understanding contempt fines require "either certified funds or cash to prevent fraud … so there doesn’t appear to be anything unusual about this requirement.."
But the Douglas County Clerk of Court’s office says it accepts all forms of payment except personal checks.
"I felt like we were walking into a trap," said Montavious.
Peterson has denied all other charges of judicial misconduct. A hearing before the state Supreme Court is expected early next year.