By GENE ESPY
The Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit celebrated its 70-year anniversary on Feb. 24.
What started out as a one-judge operation has now expanded to four fulltime judges. The circuit now handles a variety of cases, beyond the limits of where it started. When the circuit was created, there were two basic types of court cases — civil and criminal. Now the circuit has a drug court and different accountability courts.
Summerville attorney Bobby Lee Cook began practicing law six months after the birth of the Lookout Mountain circuit. Cook’s career started on August 18, 1949.
When he started, the county court circuit was still in Rome and hadn’t moved north. Plus, only one judge handled all the superior court cases.
“My first judge was H.E. Nichols, who later went to the Court of Appeals and ultimately to the state Supreme Court where he served as Chief Justice,” Cook said.
He said that John Davis was the Solicitor General at the time.
Chattooga County became a part of a new judicial circuit on Saturday (Feb. 19) when the State Senate completed legislative action on a bill creating the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, according to an article in The Summerville News on Thursday, Feb. 24, 1949.
The article went on to say, “Included also in the circuit are Walker, Dade and Catoosa counties. Formerly, Walker and Chattooga were members of the Rome Circuit, which has become a separate Circuit now. Dade and Catoosa were formerly members of the Cherokee Circuit, which also included Bartow, Gordon, Whitfield and Murray counties.
Under terms of the new act, a judge for the Lookout Circuit will be appointed by the governor, but Sol. Gen. William T. Maddox, of Rome, will continue to serve Chattooga and Walker Counties for the remainder of his term. The Cherokee Circuit solicitor also will continue in Catoosa and Dade Counties.
Judge H. E. Nichols will continue to serve the unexpired term of Claude H. Porter who resigned last year but will preside over Superior Court only in Floyd County,” the article stated.
Currently there are four Lookout Mountain Superior Court Judges – Chief Judge Kristina Cook Graham, Judge Brian House, Judge Ralph Van Pelt Jr., and Judge Don Thompson. Each one is basically responsible for a certain county, although they do cover other areas and courts when needed. It’s not uncommon all four judges to preside on one or more cases in all the courthouses within the circuit at least once or twice a year.
The main courtroom of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit here is located in the Chattooga County Courthouse, although some cases are heard in the Courthouse annex across the street from the courthouse.
Although the early Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit dealt mainly with criminal and civil matters, the present-day circuit has an array of service besides criminal and civil trials. The newly established drug court is one such venture. It was created due to the drug problem and other problems that pervade the circuit these days.
A number of services offered by the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit include the Adult Felony Drug Court; the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Mental Health Court and the circuit-wide Parental Accountability Court.
“Those are the newest programs that we have started,” Chief Judge Graham told The News Tuesday.
She said the Drug Court has been going for two years and has been going “just great” as is the Parental Accountability Court.
“The Mental Health Court is just getting started. We’re building, but we are pleased with them,” Judge Graham explained. “As a matter of fact, we had an evaluation today and everything is going well. We have full state certification from the Judicial Circuit.”
Judge Graham said that everything was going well in the circuit and she was pleased.
When Judge Graham began practicing law in 1979, the circuit had only two superior court judges that handled all four counties.
“Judge Coker and Judge Painter were on the bench and one of them did the civil work and the other did the criminal work,” she added.
Later the circuit went to three judges and now there are four regular judges to handle the huge load of cases throughout the four counties. Georgia law sets the number of judges within each circuit. The legislature also determines how many court circuits are needed in Georgia. Currently, there are 42 circuits.
“We are all working pretty much all of the time,” Judge Graham said. “We all handle everything, and we all go to all counties.”
BOBBY LEE COOK
Attorneys at the time, beside Cook, were John Davis, Mose Brinson, Arch Farrar Sr., Earl Self and T. J. Espy and one other attorney that came over from Chatsworth.
“Back then we had a sheriff, and two deputies, a chief deputy and another deputy and that was the full complement at the sheriff’s office,” Cook continued. “They had two cars. It was different then.”
He said he recalled the population of the county was 16,000-17,000 and most of the criminal cases at that time were liquor cases – moonshiners.
That continued until the time of John Frank and Gary McConnell.
“That was true across the state,” he said. “There were only four or five counties across the state where beer and wine were legal.”
At that time there were no public defenders.
“They were non-existent,” Cook said.
He added that at that time that women could not serve on juries and that did not change until 1954.
“There have been a lot of changes, but of course, there has been a lot of changes everywhere,” Mr. Cook said.