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Sparta, Ga., Municipal Court Judge Edith Ingram says she first heard the disconcerting news “out on the street.” And when she got a copy of the city’s charter, she knew it was true. The charter requires the city’s municipal judge, who hears traffic violations and city ordinance violations, to be a member of the State Bar of Georgia. Ingram, who has filled that post for six years, is not a lawyer. The judge’s ineligibility may encourage challenges to her decisions. Already, H. Michael Harvey, who has had his differences with Sparta officials, says he plans on challenging her past acts. However, prior case law indicates such attempts probably won’t be successful. Ingram says she had no idea of that requirement and apparently neither did her predecessor, Ben Lovejoy. He was not an attorney either. Will she resign? Ingram says she is waiting to hear from Sparta’s mayor and city council before taking any action. The next session of Municipal Court is scheduled for Nov. 20. Harvey says he intends to make an issue of Ingram’s lack of qualifications for the job in litigation on behalf of two clients sentenced by her. He says he’ll file suit asking that Ingram’s judgments be overturned, that any fines she assessed be returned, that convictions be expunged and that the city be assessed for damages for time his clients spent in jail. “This judge doesn’t meet the legal requirements to hold office,” Harvey says. “She should never have been appointed.” He adds that he may also file a class action. While the charter can be amended, he says, “There are still problems with people who have gone before that court. All those sentences are void.” It won’t be the first time Harvey has done battle in Sparta Municipal Court. Last year, his representation of a client on a simple loitering charge turned into an ugly courthouse confrontation between Harvey and the Sparta police. Harvey claimed Sparta Police Chief Ronnie Evans Sr. and two other officers, without provocation, yelled at him, detained him and threw him against a wall outside Ingram’s courtroom Oct. 22, 1999, as he and his client, Sahara Ransom, attempted to leave. Evans and his brother, a police captain, claimed Harvey had used profanity, which they took as a threat, and tried to swing his briefcase at them. They charged Harvey with disorderly conduct and refusing to comply with an order. Harvey responded by taking out warrants on all three officers for simple battery. Superior Court Chief Judge William A. Prior Jr. dismissed the charges against the officers two months later and informed them that he didn’t expect to hear the charges against Harvey either. Prior called it all “an unfortunate incident.” The fight over Ingram could be equally difficult for Harvey. Law professor and Georgia appellate expert Edward C. Brewer III says it’s unlikely that Ingram’s prior judgments can be undone. That’s because of a long-standing doctrine that recognizes de facto court officers, says Brewer, as assistant professor at Northern Kentucky University. “One assumes that this is all in good faith and she and others were unaware” Ingram didn’t meet the qualifications, he says. The de facto officer doctrine goes back more than 100 years in Georgia law. In an 1856 case, the Georgia Supreme Court considered the validity of judgments rendered by a justice of peace who had moved out of his district during his tenure. While the court found that the justice of the peace had vacated his office by lodging elsewhere, they refused to set aside his judgments. Well-settled doctrine based on public policy, the court said, meant that “the acts of an officer de facto, whether judicial or ministerial, are valid.” The court added that “Upon the whole, in prospect of the great public mischief which the objection, if sustained, would spread throughout the land, and no notice having been given of the alleged vacancy, and no opportunity to the officer to defend his title, we feel warranted in holding that the acts of the Justice can not be set aside in this collateral way.” Hinton v. Lindsay, 20 Ga. 746 (1856). More recently, in Varnadoe v. Housing Authority, 221 Ga. 467 (1965), the court considered whether a condemnation proceeding could be undone because two members of the housing authority were ineligible to serve in that capacity. “Conceding, but not holding,” that the pair were ineligible, the court concluded that “their official acts while so serving were nevertheless valid as those of de facto officers and cannot be here collaterally attacked.” In the past few years, at least three prosecutors and a sitting Superior Court judge have discovered to their embarrassment that they temporarily weren’t members of the bar. In Georgia, a Barrow County assistant solicitor and Douglas County Superior Court Chief Judge Robert J. James both thought their respective counties had paid their individual bar dues, only to find out otherwise. And a DUI trial in Toombs County came to a halt when lawyers found Solicitor General David B. Pittman had missed the deadline to pay his dues. But for the most part, such mixups have been rectified without jeopardizing past cases. Clayton Assistant Solicitor Robert A. McDonald had handled about 2,000 cases before he discovered in 1996 that he hadn’t paid his dues. A year later, Clayton Solicitor General Keith Martin reported his office never got a single challenge to McDonald’s cases. If forced to resign as the city’s judge, Ingram won’t be without a job. She is also Hancock County’s probate judge, a post that doesn’t require her to be a lawyer.

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