Courts news

A Superior Court judge has blocked an out-of-state newspaper from taking over The Catoosa County News' (CCN) legal notices.

Senior Judge Adele Grubbs, in a ruling filed Thursday, Feb. 8, in Catoosa County Superior Court, said the Chattanooga Times Free Press (TFP) of Tennessee does not meet the requirements to become Catoosa's legal organ newspaper.

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 issue in this case is, 'Is the Chattanooga Times published in this state and in Catoosa County as is required by the Georgia statute?'" Grubbs said in her ruling. "The court finds that it is not."

Three Catoosa County constitutional officers — Sheriff Gary Sisk, Probate Court Judge Jeff Hullender and Superior Court Clerk Tracy Brown — wanted to turn CCN's legal advertising over to the TFP.

Grubbs was appointed from the Superior Court in Marietta to hear the case because Georgia law prohibits a county's judge from presiding when it involves another judge in the judicial circuit.

"On the date of the defendants' resolution (to give legal notices to TFP), November 30, 2017, the (TFP) had no presence in Catoosa County, it had no office in the county, nor did it have any reporters, advertising agents or other publishing personnel located in Catoosa County," Grubbs said.

The judge noted that TFP is published and printed in Chattanooga and then brought to a distribution center in Catoosa, from which it is distributed to 11 counties in North Georgia. She also noted that TFP is not a member of the Georgia Press Association, which has a website (GeorgiaPublicNotice.com) that posts all legal notices for every county in Georgia at no cost to the public.

While acknowledging that the TFP, which publishes daily, has greater circulation in Catoosa County than the CCN, which publishes once a week, each Wednesday, Grubbs said "... the test is not circulation but where it is published."

"Circulation and publication are different," Grubbs said. "Circulation is the number of newspapers distributed. Publication of a newspaper involves hands-on communication with the community to collect information from all aspects of the community and items of interest to the citizens of the community. It involves the availability to the citizens to advertising and notice of events at a place located in that county. The information is then edited and formatted in an actual newspaper within that county. It does not have to be printed in that county."

CCN, which has an office located near downtown Ringgold that is open Monday through Friday, has served the county's readers for 68 years, since August 1949. It currently employs an editor, two part-time news reporters, a part-time sports editor, and an advertising representative.

Grubbs' ruling follows an evidentiary hearing that she held Feb. 2 in Catoosa County Superior Court, plus an injunction hearing held on Dec. 22. CCN was represented by Attorney Robert L. Berry with Brinson-Askew-Berry Law Office in Rome, Ga.

Legal notices are a major source of revenue for most newspapers. They include notices such as sheriff's sales, probate court citations, bankruptcies, foreclosures, and more, which is why the decision on legal organ status is left to the sheriff, probate judge and Superior Court clerk.