published Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

Georgia Supreme Court ruling says Walker must pay ex-judge, but county plans to appeal

Walker County needs to pay roughly $79,000 to former State Court Judge Bruce E. Roberts in salary plus attorney's fees Roberts incurred in a 2012 lawsuit against the county, according to a recent ruling.

Roberts should have been paid the same amount as Judge C. Donald Peppers Sr., whom Roberts was appointed to replace on Oct. 3, 2012, wrote Senior Georgia Superior Court Judge Larry Salmon, of Rome, Ga.

"My attorney and I are obviously pleased with the verdict and that Judge Salmon simply followed the law," Roberts said by email Friday. He declined further comment because Walker County has 30 days to appeal Salmon's Oct. 28 ruling.

"Until then, it is considered pending litigation and I am bound by the Canons of Ethics from discussing the case," Roberts wrote.

David Cunningham, the LaFayette, Ga., private attorney who is handling the case for Walker County, said he plans to appeal.

"I was disappointed in the ruling. Very disappointed in the ruling," he said. "In our judgment, it will go to the Supreme Court of Georgia."

Cunningham said he'll ask Salmon to sign a certificate of immediate review, after which Georgia's high court could hear the case. Salmon presided over the case because Walker County judges recused themselves.

Constitution sets pay

Peppers' annual salary was $172,102 while Roberts' was $100,000. Roberts served 15 months, until Dec. 31, 2012, and was paid $78,879 less than Peppers would have earned. Salmon's ruling accounted for the amount Peppers earned for Catoosa County cases, which Roberts never handled.

The county maintains that Roberts agreed to the $100,000 salary in negotiations with county Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell. The state court judge is paid out of the county's general fund, and Heiskell said Peppers deserved a higher salary because he held the judgeship for 25 years while Roberts was new at the job.

But Salmon's 10-page order states that Roberts was entitled to the same pay as Peppers under the Georgia Constitution and Roberts' salary was a matter of law, not a contractual matter.

After Roberts sued, Walker County fired back by arguing that Roberts needed to reimburse the county for dismissing 53 traffic cases on Aug. 3, just days after he lost the July 31 primary election to Billy Mullinax.

Roberts threw out the tickets "in an attempt to potentially cause financial harm to the Walker County voters and taxpayers who had turned him out of office by a landslide margin," wrote county attorney Don Oliver, who was handling the case then.

But Salmon dismissed the county's countersuit, stating that judges have immunity from civil claims.

Salmon described as "frivolous" the county's counterclaims against Roberts for breach of contract, attorney's fees and costs and intentional infliction of monetary damages and emotional distress.

Staff writer Tyler Jett contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township┬╣s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...

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