The Georgia Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of The Catoosa County News in its fight to remain the county-designated publisher of legal notices.
The three-judge panel, in a 22-page decision Tuesday, March 5, said the out-of-state Chattanooga Times Free Press does not meet Georgia law requiring that a legalorgan newspaper be "published within the county."
CCN Editor Don Stilwell said the ruling is "great news, not just for The Catoosa County News, but for newspapers across Georgia."
"It is also a win for Catoosa County," Stilwell said. "We have been serving Catoosa for 70 years. We reinvest the money we earn from legal notices. We put that revenue back into the community, for our readers both in print and online, in a lot of ways — the best county sports coverage around, community news, school news, church news, upcoming events, special sections and a lot more, that no other publication provides for county residents."
Chief Judge C.J. Dillard, in the court's decision, wrote, "The Chattanooga Times's 'home' is, without question, located in Chattanooga, Tennessee."
Under Georgia law, the legal organ newspaper must be published for at least two years within the county that it is to serve, unless there is no newspaper in the county already doing so.
The CCN, which is on Nashville Street near downtown Ringgold, Ga., and is open to the public five days a week, has been the county's legal organ — the designated publisher of legal notices — since 1949. It publishes its print edition each Wednesday and publishes daily on its website.
The CCN, as the county's legal organ, publishes all legal advertising, including sheriff's sales, probate court citations, bankruptcies, foreclosures and more. In addition to print, legal notices are also posted on the CCN website and on GeorgiaPublicNotice.com – an aggregate website for the legal-organ newspapers from each of Georgia's 159 counties. GeorgiaPublicNotice.com is hosted by the Georgia Press Association.
Three constitutional officers — sheriff, probate court judge, and Superior
Court clerk — are tasked with designating the county's legal organ since many of the notices originate from their offices.
In November 2017, Sheriff Gary Sisk, Probate Court Judge Jeff Hullender and Superior Court Clerk Tracy Brown decided to change the legal organ to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The CCN successfully challenged that decision in Catoosa County Superior Court in December 2017, arguing that the Tennessee newspaper did not qualify as the legal organ under Georgia law. The three officials then appealed the decision to the Georgia Court of Appeals.
Chief Judge Dillard, in the ruling, wrote, "... While the Chattanooga Times operates a distribution center in Catoosa County that employs county residents, .... publishing a newspaper involves more than mere distribution of the newspaper. Additionally, evidence showed that, before the 'physical newspapers' are transported to distribution centers, the Chattanooga Times is edited, formatted and issued in Chattanooga."
Georgia Press Association Attorney David Hudson said the ruling is a significant one for Georgia newspapers. "This is an important and beneficial decision upholding local legal organ newspapers," Hudson said.
Hudson noted that the appeals court judges used a 1932 case, Carter v. Land, to arrive at their decision.
"The Carter case," Hudson said, "decided that publishing a newspaper 'means something more than the mere distribution of the newspaper' or simply 'having it entered at the post office for distribution.' If that was all that was required, it would not serve the purpose of the statute to patronize in-county industry and build up local institutions."
Catoosa County Attorney Chad Young, who argued the case for the county, said, "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 21st century.
"While we respectfully disagree with the ultimate ruling," Young said, "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.
"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," Young said.
Young said the case has cost the county $28,006 in attorneys fees, court costs and other expenses.
He said that the county pays him and County Attorney Clifton "Skip" Patty $125 per hour. Their office, Patty & Young law firm in Ringgold, bills the county each month, he said. Paralegals who work on cases for his office are paid less, he said.
"The Carter case decided that publishing a newspaper 'means something more than the mere distribution of the newspaper' or simply 'having it entered at the post office for distribution.' If that was all that was required, it would not serve the purpose of the statute to patronize in-county industry and build up local institutions.
Georgia Press Association Attorney David Hudson