Rookie probate judge could be highest paid judge in Douglas Co.

Last year, the Douglas County Probate Office handled 647 cases, most of them uncontested wills.

Douglas County commissioners approved an increase in the salary of their new probate judge, paving the way for the possibility Christina Peterson next year could be the highest-paid judge in the Douglas County courthouse.

Peterson has never been a judge before. And the probate court’s primary function is to process wills, marriage licenses, and concealed weapon permits.

"This is a sham," complained Commissioner Ann Jones Guider, one of the two commissioners who voted no. "This is a dark day in Douglas County."

Peterson replaced retiring probate judge Hal Hamrick. He is not an attorney. The county paid him $96,500.

Probate Judge-elect Christina Peterson argued since she's an attorney she should be paid similar to other judges, even if her office's caseload pales in comparison.

Since she’s a member of the bar and, unlike Hamrick, can preside over jury trials, Peterson argued she should make a similar salary of state and superior court judges in Douglas County.

She asked for $175,000. Our earlier investigation found few jury trials are needed in probate court each year.

"She knew what the pay was when she signed up to run," remarked Guider.

The issue was so contentious in Douglas County that Chief Judge of Superior Court David Emerson offered his opinion before the budget vote, sending commissioners a letter listing the small number of probate court cases — 647 — compared to the caseload for all the other courts. And most of those were uncontested wills.

The salary increase approved by Douglas County Commissioners paves the way for Peterson to make more than not just any other judge in the courthouse, but any GA Supreme Court justice as well.

According to Emerson, during that same time period Superior Court handled 6332 cases. State court: 13,473 cases.

"It’s not fair to compare that court to the other judges," Emerson told the FOX 5 I-Team.

But Peterson twice went before the board of commissioners to lobby for an increase in pay.

"I’m looking for fairness across the board," she said. "It’s not just being consistent. I have the same qualifications as everyone else."

Commissioners voted 3-2 to pay Peterson a supplement of $36,688 to go with her state-mandated $88,110 annual salary. She’ll make a minimum of $124,798 a year.

But that’s the minimum. State law allows the probate judge to keep any fees paid for birth and death certificates. This year in Douglas County that added up to more than $70,000.

Retiring judge Hamrick typically kept half — returning the other half to the general fund.

But Judge Peterson says she will keep it all, meaning if that fee amount repeats next year, her actual pay could rise to as much as $194,000.

That would be more than any other judge in the Douglas County courthouse.

For comparison, Georgia Supreme Court justices in Georgia make $179,112.

Retiring Douglas County probate judge Hal Hamrick kept half of vital records fees as part of his compensation, giving the other 50% to the county general fund. His successor says she'll keep it all.

Peterson also stands to make far more next year than her fellow probate judges in nearby counties with similar populations.

Carroll County pays its probate judge $87,513. Paulding, $101,625. They’re attorneys, too. And in Paulding County, that judge also handles traffic court.

Judge Peterson’s office doesn’t have that responsibility.

Douglas County commissioners agreed to give Peterson two additional employees, increasing her overall budget by $346,000.

In an email, Peterson told the FOX 5 I-Team she knew what her predecessor made, but said she was "negotiating my compensation package."

She would not explain how her office’s small caseload justified such a big salary and additional employees.

The optics may bother some taxpayers, but commissioners pointed out that Douglas County recently maintained its solid bond rating.

Commissioner Guider said that is partly due to the fact Douglas County raised taxes by 27% this year.