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Gun carry permit lawsuits cost Chatham Co. taxpayers

Published: Feb. 10, 2022 at 2:37 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 10, 2022 at 6:04 PM EST
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CHATHAM COUNTY, Ga. (WTOC) - Chatham County taxpayers have been stuck paying the tab for a years-long legal battle over gun rights.

WTOC Investigates added up the legal fees spent to defend a handful of lawsuits against Chatham County Probate Court Judge Tom Bordeaux.

As of late last year, the legal bills paid have added up to more than $92,000 with a large majority of it paid to a gun rights attorney who has filed lawsuits against probate court judges across the state.

At least two of the lawsuits against Bordeaux are still pending in the state court of appeals.

All but one of them have to do with individual claims that the judge wrongfully denied a resident a weapon’s carry license. The license is what allows someone to carry a concealed handgun in the state of Georgia.

Probate judges are tasked with overseeing the application process and conducting background checks.

Judge Bordeaux declined to comment about the specific lawsuits involving him, saying it would not be appropriate, but he did provide a lengthy emailed statement, which reads in part: “The job of the Probate Court Judge of Chatham County is to follow the law as passed by the state legislature and the governor. They decide whether a convicted felon can legally carry a weapon in a bar or a grocery store. The probate court judge is required to follow that decision, and that’s what we do.”

But for those who have sued and won, it’s marked a difficult and expensive chapter of their time in Chatham County.

“That wasn’t a happy time,” resident Greg Hise said. “I never thought it would go on for 15 months. That was amazing.”

A firearms instructor and avid hunter, Hise said finally did receive his Georgia weapons carry license.

As he explained, the issue began in 2018 shortly after he and his wife retired to Savannah from Virginia where he already had the license. He applied for one in Georgia and was denied about a week later.

He later found out why: an assault charge on his record from the 1970s.

“I got it straightened out with Virginia in one week, so I thought I’ll just go down there and straighten it out, but it didn’t happen like that,” Hise said.

He hired gun rights attorney John Monroe.

“It ended up being well over a year after the writ of mandamus was issued before Judge Bordeaux gave Mr. Hise a license,” Monroe said.

Monroe has not only represented Hise, but two other individuals who have sued Judge Bordeaux over claims of being wrongfully denied.

Records of legal bills paid for by Chatham County show taxpayers not only paid outside attorneys to defend the judge in those lawsuits, but they also paid about $68,000 in Monroe’s legal fees after he won the lawsuits.

A state law change is what allowed Monroe to pursue legal fees from the county after his clients won their lawsuits.

“The issue isn’t really making a point,” Monroe said. “I suppose there could be cases where it is a point, but in most of the cases I filed against Judge Bordeaux they were for individual clients who were individually denied a license, so just because Judge Bordeaux might have lost on a previous case involving someone who was denied, that doesn’t help the next guy who comes along who was wrongfully denied a license. So, I guess from my perspective as long as people keep getting wrongfully denied, I’ll keep helping them get that rectified.”

The remaining legal fees went to several outside law firms who Chatham County hired to defend Judge Bordeaux in the lawsuits.

Monroe also is involved in another lawsuit pending appeal against Judge Bordeaux. He represents the gun rights advocacy group Georgia Carry also known as GA2A.

In 2018, the group filed a lawsuit in Chatham County over a months-long delay with probate court in processing weapons carry license applications. The issue - back then - is one Judge Bordeaux publicly spoke and was widely reported by WTOC News.

“A five month delay is not legal,” Judge Bordeaux said in an interview with WTOC back in 2018. “I know that, the courts know that and the county commission knows that. Unless we follow the law, we ‘aught to be sued and we’re doing everything we can.”

In the recent emailed statement to WTOC, Judge Bordeaux says the backlog is “eliminated” after the commission agreed to create new staff positions to help process applications.

His office has kept up with the applications, he said, even with a record number of them during the pandemic.

Record number of applicants

Chatham County Probate Court processed 6,343 applications in 2021. Surpassing the last record set in 2020 when it processed 5,814 applications. Court data for the past four years shows the court continues to issue licenses for an overwhelming majority of people who applied. The judge denied less than five percent of applicants last year.

2021

  • 6,343 applications
  • 310 denials
  • 25 revoked

2020

  • 5,814 applications
  • 342 denials
  • 32 revocations

2019

  • 4,713 applications
  • 315 denials
  • 26 revocations

2018

  • 4,325 applications
  • 384 denials
  • 18 revocations

It’s a record-breaking trend Kevin Holder has seen across the state. One that was expected to continue through last year. Holder is the executive director of Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia. He explained what’s driving the record number of applicants.

“It’s a number of things” Holder said. “It’s the ongoing pandemic. It’s the rise in violent crime across the country and some parts of the state and then it’s also kind of the political dynamic that’s going on in the background with the upcoming mid-term elections, as well.”

Senate Bill 319

Recent lobbying efforts by Georgia Carry could do away with the weapons carry license requirements for certain Georgians.

Georgia Carry executive director Jerry Henry and Holder said the bill to watch this session is State Senate Bill 319, also dubbed the “Georgia Constitutional Carry Act of 2021.” Although, both said the bill, in practicality – would not change much from what’s already required.

As Henry explained, if the bill passes, Georgia residents would not have to apply for a license to carry a concealed handgun. However, they would still have to undergo a federal background check to purchase a gun. The wait time can take several weeks, which is why the license process might be more appealing. It takes about a week in Chatham County.

Also, Henry pointed out without the license, carrying across stateliness in state’s that have reciprocity might prove problematic.

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