Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

December 10, 2013

Commissioners accept judge’s resignation

County attorney Kelley Peacock named as court replacement

Ben Tinsley
Jacksonville Daily Progress

RUSK — Cherokee County Commissioners Court meetings generally are known for their brevity and lack of conflict. But Monday's meeting threw some people for a loop when the majority of commissioners  — minus two who abstained from voting — unexpectedly appointed County Attorney Kelley Peacock to replace resigned county court at law judge Craig Fletcher.

Precinct 3 Cherokee County Commissioner Katherine W. Pinotti, who

abstained from the vote in protest, was one of the most vocal critics of the action taken by her fellow commissioners. She said she was astonished the vote to immediately replace Fletcher was taken.

"We should not have come out of executive session to vote on this appointment," Pinotti said. "The appointment of an elected official was not listed on this agenda to be discussed or voted on — it just said 'personnel matters.' You would have thought the court would have been more prudent and at least attempt to be transparent in this matter.”

Pinotti said she was under the impression some criteria was going to be established so the best possible replacement could be found for Fletcher. The former judge resigned without explanation in a Dec. 4 letter to County Judge Chris Davis and did not appear in court Monday when commissioners unanimously accepted his resignation.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Steven Norton could not immediately be reached after the meeting to explain the reasons behind his abstention. But Pinotti -used works like "shocked" and "travesty" to describe her belief  the vote that declared Peacock a judge was not legal.

During the meeting, Davis read aloud Fletcher's Dec. 4. resignation, which provided absolutely no reason for his departure. Fletcher has not returned messages for comment.

"I have made a decision, after much prayer and discussion with family to not seek reelection," Fletcher wrote. "Furthermore, I am at this time tendering my official resignation as Cherokee County Court at law judge effective 5 p.m. on Monday."

Interviews of judge candidates subsequently were conducted during an extended executive session, which added at least two hours to the usual 20-minute meeting span.

After the meeting, Davis said the court had no choice but to make the immediate replacement because the criminal cases flooding the court are overwhelming.

"This is a perfect storm for every nightmare you could image with the courts and the election," Davis said. "The timing of this is very troubling because we have a big docket. I am going to have to jump in and help (adjudicate) part of the criminal

docket and the state hospital stuff.  We're looking for the smoothest transition possible.  There are so many variables and this was not an easy decision. But we had to keep the court running, and this was the best thing to do."

Pinotti vehemently disagreed, saying it was outrageous the commissioners court would not wait a while before appointing a replacement for Fletcher, who spent seven years as the Cherokee County Court at Law judge.

She pointed that Jerry Calhoon, senior judge of the 349th District Court, had already been appointed to cover the responsibilities of the court by Mary Murphy, presiding judge of the First Administrative judicial region, as court documents have confirmed. Pinotti said because of this, there was no real reason to rush with an appointment.

She added Peacock is a good county attorney, but she is grounded in covering misdemeanor cases and child abuse and nothing near the volume of severity of cases that go through the county court at law venue.

"I don't think anyone should be appointed who doesn't have experience working on a bench," Pinotti said. "There is a huge learning curve in this kind of situation, and I would not want to be a casualty of that curve."

An upbeat Kelley Peacock offered a few words on her appointment as she was on her way to fill out the paperwork to formally resign her Cherokee County Attorney position so she could legally accept the judgeship. She said Pinotti has not confronted her with her concerns and added she was under the impression the two of them had a good

working relationship.

"I don't know what her concern is, but I obviously disagree with that — and think my qualifications trump those of my predecessor in this position," Peacock said. "I wouldn't take this job if I weren't prepared  for it."

Peacock said she was also unaware why Fletcher resigned. But she said when she learned about the resignation,  she immediately put her hat in the ring.

In her absence, from the county attorney's office, the First County Attorney will run the office until a replacement is formally selected by the commissioners court.

Peacock said she is going to ask for a legal opinion to see if she should be allowed to try cases she has worked as a county attorney. If it is determined a conflict exists, those cases will be deferred to County Judge Davis to adjudicate.

"I don't anticipate this being a big problem," she said.