published Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

John Gass is the new Catoosa County chief magistrate

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    Catoosa County Chief Magistrate Judge Donald "Sonny" Caldwell in undated photo from Catoosa County government web site

RINGGOLD, Ga. -- The newly appointed Catoosa County chief magistrate said Monday he will strive to improve public perception of the magistrate office.

Judge John Gass, who has been a magistrate for four years, was sworn in Monday. He was appointed after a recommendation by his former boss, Donald "Sonny" Caldwell.

Caldwell, who had held public office for 38 years, retired before his appointment ended, citing failing health.

Gass said,"We're going to make some changes. We want the image of the magistrate court not to be as negative as it has been."

The magistrate's office has been under fire for the past year after former Judge Anthony Peters was taken from the County Courthouse in handcuffs in the summer of 2010. Last month, he was removed from his position by the Georgia Supreme Court for marijuana and prescription drug abuse and judicial misconduct.

Before Peters was removed, the state's watchdog agency for judges -- the Judicial Qualifications Commission -- investigated 13 counts of judicial misconduct filed against Peters, who was appointed magistrate in 1997. The charges stemmed from incidents between 2008 and 2010.

At the time, Peters also filed a complaint against Caldwell, accusing his boss of misusing county time and questioning his use of campaign funds, but the commission dismissed the allegations in December.

Peters was paid his more-than-$70,000 annual salary while he was on administrative leave, pending the judicial commission investigation.

Gass said he will look at specific ways to change policies, and his first action will be to hire a third magistrate within the next month.

Before Peters was suspended in 2010, the office had four judges. Gass said the County Commission asked if he could conduct court with only three judges for the next fiscal year, which began in October.

If the court can't manage with three judges, the budget will be amended to include a fourth position, Gass said.

"It's just to help the county out," he said.

Gass, who will hold the chief magistrate position until Dec. 31, 2012, said he will run for the job in next year's elections.

Before his appointment as a magistrate, Gass worked for the Ringgold Police Department for eight years and spent 13 years with the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at 423-757-6659 or jlukachick@timesfreepress.com.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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