Douglas County judge slapped with 2nd state complaint in first year of office

Douglas County Probate Judge Christina Peterson has been in office less than a year but already faces two state complaints of ethical wrongdoing.

Douglas County Probate Judge Christina Peterson must answer a second state complaint of wrongdoing. 

She’s been in office less than a year.

This time Peterson faces allegations she put the public’s safety at risk for actions she took at the Douglas County Courthouse.

According to a complaint filed by the Judicial Qualifications Commission — the group that investigates judicial behavior in Georgia — Peterson violated security rules by letting civilians into the locked courthouse after hours.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office told the FOX 5 I-Team Peterson scheduled a morning wedding on Saturday, April 17, 2021.

Just like on weekdays, deputies arrived that morning, opened the courthouse and stood by the security checkpoint to make sure anyone entering the building was properly screened.

But when the wedding never materialized, deputies locked up and went home.

Peterson arrived in the afternoon with the wedding party, calling the sheriff’s office to say there was a mistake in scheduling.

Capt. Trent Wilson heads up security at the Douglas County Courthouse. He said Peterson ignored security orders and put the public at risk.

Captain Trent Wilson, supervisor of courthouse security, said he talked to Peterson over the phone and made it clear to the judge: his deputies were not coming back and she could have the wedding outside instead.

"You cannot go into this building," Wilson said he told her. "But eventually she went in."

Security video showed the wedding party walking into the second floor entrance to the courthouse without being screened. They used the elevator or stairs to go to the third floor where the wedding was held.

In all, the security video showed 18 people entered the courthouse unscreened.

The sheriff’s office was not happy.

"If you don’t go through the screening station, and you’re a citizen you can drop off a gun, put it in the trash can, in the bathroom," Wilson explained. "There’s places in there you can hide things that can hurt people.

Security video shows judge Christina Peterson (black robe) allowing civilians to enter the Douglas County Courthouse without being screened.

"She put all of the employees that work in this courthouse, and the citizens that would come in Monday morning at risk," said Wilson.

He said the risk was still there even though no weapons were found.

The wedding incident is one of several new charges from the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

Earlier this year, the JQC accused Peterson of inappropriate social media behavior, like using her position as a judge-elect to solicit cash gifts for her birthday.

In her official response, she said her posts are protected by the First Amendment. JQC investigators say she told them she didn’t know her Instagram page was public and meant the post only for her friends.

Peterson made waves even before taking office, successfully arguing the job’s salary was too low and she should get paid as much as a Superior Court judge.

"That’s not sufficient for the increased judicial responsibilities that I will have to have including jury trials," she explained to commissioners in December.

But that same month, Chief Superior Court Judge David Emerson complained to commissioners raising Peterson’s salary would be unfair — especially in a tight budget — because the probate judge typically holds few trials and has a caseload far less than other judges.

"I’m just shocked that it’s even being considered," Judge Emerson told the FOX 5 I-Team in December.

Commissioners agreed to boost Peterson’s salary another $36,688. With other filing fees she’s legally allowed to choose to keep, her actual pay could be as much as $194,000 a year.

When Emerson heard about the unauthorized Saturday wedding in April, he temporarily suspended Peterson’s after-hours access to the courthouse.

According to the JQC complaint, Peterson responded with an email to Emerson, copied to other court and governmental officials:

"This is harassment, prejudicial and borderline racist. I pray that your soul is saved and I also pray that the Sheriff will know his authority and use it for good."

Her email also went on to tell Emerson, "Please retire as this county has outgrown your spirit."

Michael Broyde teaches ethics at the Emory University School of Law.

"The ill temper in the emails is conduct deeply unbecoming a judge," he observed.

Neither Peterson nor her attorney would comment about the latest allegations. Emerson declined comment too.

The JQC complaint also contains allegations Peterson took advantage of her own neighbors. 

Before she became a judge, Peterson represented some neighbors in a lawsuit against the Silver Creek Ranch Homeowners Association. According to the complaint, Peterson told them she would work for free but then kept all of the $70,000 settlement without telling her clients.

Some of those clients later took Peterson to court, accusing her of misleading them.

The case was dismissed.

Judge Peterson emailed former clients cautioning them about talking to reporters about the JQC complaint. Peterson is accused of keeping $70,000 in settlement fees for herself.

Neighbors agreed to talk to the FOX 5 I-Team about the JQC complaint, but then changed their minds after they say Judge Peterson sent them this email:

"The commission who is bringing this lawsuit back up in order to attempt to remove me as a Judge has NO authority to relitigate the case." 

And then Peterson told them "we still have attorney client privilege."

Attorney-client privilege only applies to what an attorney discloses. The client is free to say what they want, especially if they’re unhappy with their attorney.

Broyde think Peterson could face expulsion from the court unless she apologizes for her behavior. The way he sees it, "part of the problem here is that the judge seems to not be a person who ever expresses regret or remorse and a tendency to say I’m sorry. I’m new at this job. I’ve made a mistake."

The Georgia Supreme Court turned down the JQC’s request to have her immediately suspended until a hearing next year, but the panel said it was "concerned about the number and the escalation in seriousness of the allegations against Judge Peterson."