Judge Stephen Dillard (Courtesy photo) Judge Stephen Dillard (Courtesy photo)

In a struggle with far-reaching implications, a small-town newspaper has won a battle to hold on to the business of publishing legal notices after being fired by county officials.

The Georgia Court of Appeals has upheld a trial judge’s grant of an injunction for a newspaper in the small town of Ringgold. It’s the last town in Georgia going north on Interstate 75 before the Tennessee state line.

The reason? The replacement—the Chattanooga Times, just over in Tennessee—is outside the county, as well as the state.

The 30-page March 5 opinion covered the various requirements in state law for the publication of legal notices such as foreclosures, divorces and debt collections, as well as relevant Georgia Supreme Court precedent. But the decision came down to this: The Catoosa County News is in Catoosa County. The Chattanooga Times is in Chattanooga. Under state law, legal notices must appear in a newspaper published in the county. Having 13,000 of 60,000 subscribers living in Catoosa County and two reporters covering it—with one of them living there—didn’t put the Chattanooga Times over the hurdle.

Chief Judge Stephen Dillard wrote the opinion for a panel that included Judges Sara Doyle and Amanda Mercier. They upheld a ruling by visiting Judge Adele Grubbs. Grubbs filled in when the judges of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit had to recuse because the case involves a judge there—Catoosa County Probate Judge Jeff Hullender. The choice for legal notices belongs to the probate judge, along with the sheriff and the clerk of court. The three passed a resolution in November 2017 changing the legal organ.

Grubbs “concluded that the Chattanooga Times was statutorily ineligible to be the official legal organ of Catoosa County because, unlike CCN, it is not published in the County,” Dillard said. “The County argues that the trial court erred in its interpretation of OCGA §9-13-142 when it determined that the Chattanooga Times is not published in Catoosa County. We disagree.”

Attorneys for Catoosa County News and its parent company, Rome News Media, said the decision is important to newspapers and small towns across the state.

“A lot of counties in Georgia have newspapers that serve as legal organs,” Frank Beacham III of Brinson Askew Berry Seigler Richardson & Davis in Rome said on a conference call Friday with his co-counsel, Bob Berry Jr. Many of those newspapers “could not exist” without the legal notice business, he said.

“These communities would be without a newspaper,” Beacham said. “These newspapers mean a lot to these communities.”

The county was represented by Clifton “Skip” Patty Jr. and C. Chad Young of the Patty Law Firm, and solo Christopher Harris of Ringgold.

Opponents Beacham and Berry said Young gave excellent oral arguments and made some strong points.

Young shared some of those Friday.

“The existing statutory framework governing qualifications for County legal organs in Georgia is approximately 30 years old and the appellate precedent, to the extent it exists, governing the specific issue in this case dates back approximately 100 years. Neither the existing statutes nor appellate precedent address the current manner in which news and information are reported, transmitted or received in the twenty-first century,” Young said in an emailed note.

“While we respectfully disagree with the ultimate ruling, we appreciate the diligence and thoroughness of the Court of Appeals’ opinion and legal analysis, especially when faced with the difficult task of interpreting what amounts to antiquated statutes and legal precedent and applying the same to modern times,” Young said. “We are hopeful that the legislature will take note of these deficiencies and modernize the existing statutes to provide more current guidance to local elected officials charged with making decisions concerning the legal organ of their Counties in today’s media environment.”

Dillard acknowledged that change may be coming in this area of the law. But not today.

“Thus, while it might be perfectly sensible to update or revise OCGA §9-13-142 in light of these technological advances, ‘it is the job of the legislature, not the courts, to rewrite or revise statutes.’ In any event, online publishing is not at issue in this case, and we are bound by our Supreme Court’s precedents regarding the statutory construction of the word ‘published’ when it is used in references to hard copy newspapers,” Dillard said.

David Hudson of Hull Barrett in Augusta, and also general counsel of the Georgia Press Association, filed an amicus brief in support of the Catoosa County News. On Friday, he shared some practical advice for other newspapers.

“This is an important and beneficial decision upholding local legal organ newspapers,” Hudson said. “It is also a signal, in these times of newspaper consolidation, of functions that need to be kept in the county to ensure continued legal organ qualification.”

The case is Catoosa County v. Rome News Media and Catoosa County News, No. A18A1701.