Credit: Benjamin Payne / GPB News
Chatham DA to appeal federal judge’s sanctions against her
Jake Shore, The Current
Chatham County’s District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones has given notice she will appeal sanctions brought against her by a federal judge who accused her of misleading the court in a civil case brought by a former employee.
Cook Jones filed her appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Nov. 22 after retaining a new lawyer, who says the extraordinary 50-page order against her is the fault of the DA’s original lawyers and a politically motivated judge.
U.S. District Judge R. Stan Baker’s harsh ruling against Cook Jones in October shocked members of Savannah’s legal community for baring in public what officers of the Chatham County court have complained about for some time in private.
Baker’s order cited in granular detail a pattern of what he called Cook Jones’ misleading statements, poor time management and lack of respect towards the judicial norms and processes. The sanction included a default judgment in favor of Cook Jones’ former employee, Skye Musson, who had alleged that the DA oversaw a hostile workplace since taking over the office of the county’s top prosecutor in January 2021.
Mark Tate of Tate Law Group, LLC, in Savannah, says he is Cook Jones’ new lawyer and handling her appeal, though he has not yet filed legal arguments on her behalf. However, in an interview with The Current he said that the DA’s prior attorneys did not apprise her of the multiple case delays and mounting pressure from the judge.
Tate also plans to argue that Baker’s order was politically motivated. Cook Jones is a Democratic DA who supports progressive criminal justice reforms, which has made her a controversial figure among Georgia Republicans. Baker took the bench after being nominated by former President Donald Trump.
“At the time this federal judge ordered her to be present for a deposition, thinking that her deposition in a civil case was more important than the job she was elected to do. It’s the height of arrogance,” Tate said.
Baker’s sanctions against Cook Jones came after months-long delays in the civil case where she was a defendant. Cook Jones failed to show up to a deposition, a common part of civil cases, due to a scheduling conflict caused when she assigned herself the role of lead prosecutor in a Chatham County rape case, responsibilities Tate says took precedence over Baker’s court schedule.
In his order, Baker said the scheduling conflict was of Cook Jones’ own making and accused her of essentially lying to both the state court judge and Judge Baker.
“Cook Jones’ failure to even mention her self-created conflict to this Court or the Superior Court, despite so many opportunities to do so, leaves the Court with the inescapable conclusion that she gave no regard whatsoever to her discovery responsibilities and this Court’s Orders,” Baker wrote.
Tate said fundamental misunderstandings between Cook Jones and the judge were created by her former attorneys of Cruser, Mitchell, Novitz, Sanchez, Gaston & Zimet, LLP. He said they failed to make the DA aware of the multiple deadline extensions they sought, and he claimed that they did not “follow her instructions” to file certain motions. The firm, which operates in multiple states, employed Cook Jones in 2006. The firm’s website previously listed her as a managing partner at their Savannah office.
The notice of appeal filed last week starts the process for the federal court of appeals to consider the merits of Baker’s order. The clerk’s office will transmit the transcripts and evidence from the case. Both Cook Jones’ and Musson’s attorneys will have 40 days to file motions justifying or opposing the appeal.
Scrutiny of Chatham’s DA
Cook Jones, a former assistant district attorney in Chatham County, won the position of Eastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney after unseating her former boss, Meg Heap, in the November 2020 election.
Numerous prosecutors left the office when Cook Jones started her tenure, leaving the department severely understaffed while the backlog in court cases were acutely high after the Covid pandemic. The situation has left judges, defense attorneys and former assistant district attorneys feeling frustrated.
At the same time, Cook Jones has been a target for state Republicans who seek to oust so-called progressive prosecutors, who were elected across Georgia in part for their desire to reform mandatory bail and prison sentences. Those positions, many Republicans say, reveal them to be soft on crime.
In the spring of 2023 Georgia’s legislature passed a law creating a prosecutor oversight commission meant to field and investigate complaints against DAs. In May, Gov. Brian Kemp signed the bill into law at Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher’s jail, a suggestion that Cook Jones could be a target of the new commission.
However, the future of the commission is currently in doubt after a Nov. 22 ruling by the Supreme Court of Georgia citing constitutional concerns about the commission’s rules.
Cook Jones, whose term ends in 2024, faces two challengers for her office: Anthony Burton and Jenny Parker, both former Chatham County assistant district attorneys.
Cook Jones filed a “declaration of intention to accept campaign contributions” for the 2024 election on Oct. 12, but she has not yet officially announced whether she is running for re-election.
Should she decide to stand again, both challengers are expected to campaign by citing the federal sanctions against her.
Baker’s October ruling isn’t the first time a federal judge has sanctioned Cook Jones. She was previously reprimanded on Dec. 28, 2020, for abandonment of her client, in violation of Georgia Bar rules.
At the time, Cook Jones represented Harriet Singleton, a Black woman who worked as a code enforcement officer for Garden City. Singleton sued the city in May 2019 alleging she was unjustly passed over for promotions despite her experience and fired after she complained — she alleged her treatment had to do with race.
The judge overseeing the case said Singleton’s claim suffered an unexpected setback when Cook Jones pulled out of the case without giving official notice.
“Shalena Cook Jones has seemingly abandoned her client,” U.S. District Judge Christopher Ray wrote in a March 2020 order seeking her to show up for court and explain why she left her client. Ray wrote that Jones repeatedly said she would file an official withdrawal but never did.
In later filings, Cook Jones said she withdrew from the case due to nonpayment from her client. In the disciplinary findings, Cook Jones “admitted her shortcomings and apologized for them” to the court, but she “also deflected blame towards her staff and even an attorney who did not work with her.” She was formally reprimanded on March 18, 2020, a time that coincided with her running for district attorney.
Baker detailed more of Cook Jones’ alleged behavior in the 2020 case when he wrote his own sanctions decision this fall.
Baker noted there were numerous similarities between how Cook Jones acted in the Singleton case and in the Musson case.
“Cook Jones failed to respond to basic discovery requests on behalf of her client, failed to file a motion to withdraw despite representation to the Court that she would do so, failed to respond to the Court’s show cause order, and failed to timely appear for a show cause hearing,” he wrote.
Tate said the two cases couldn’t be more different, and it should not have been relied on as justification for sanctions.
“Separate case. Separate matter,” Tate said. “(The Singleton case) had nothing to do with fulfilling any responsibility she had to the people who elected her.”
As for Singleton, Cook Jones’ client from 2020, her case never got to trial. After Cook Jones pulled out, she was unable to find another lawyer to take it up. A judge dismissed her claim in 2021.
“I didn’t know she was running for office at the time,” Singleton said, which she said probably had a lot to do with why Cook Jones dropped out.
Singleton said the wounds from Cook Jones’ withdrawal still linger.
“I was very hurt,” she said. Talking about the case again “brought back a lot of hurt and disappointment that I tried to put behind me.”
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Current.