Muscogee County Probate Judge Julia W. Lumpkin was judicially removed Tuesday as a representative of her parents' multimillion-dollar estates, losing the first round of a potentially high-stakes court battle to her brother, Frank G. Lumpkin III.
Senior Judge Loring A. Gray Jr. of Albany, Ga., found no factual issues remained for trial in the civil case and sided with Frank Lumpkin in granting summary judgment. Julia Lumpkin's appointment as a representative of the estates in her own court was made "in direct contravention" to state law, wrote the judge, sitting by special designation, in a one-page order.
It was a posthumous victory for attorney Frank K. Martin, the former Columbus mayor who represented Frank Lumpkin and died Sunday after a lengthy bout with pancreatic cancer. Before his death, Martin had attributed the impasse over the estates to a disagreement between the siblings over University of Georgia season football tickets.
The ruling marked the latest development in an unusual legal drama surrounding the Lumpkin estates, which have remained unsettled in Julia Lumpkin's probate court for more than a decade.
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"Frank Lumpkin is very happy about Judge Gray's ruling and is anxious to move forward to conclude administration of his mom and dad's estates after all these years," said Hubert C. Lovein Jr., a Macon, Ga., attorney who represents Frank Lumpkin. Potential damages were not before Gray in his ruling, Lovein said, and will be addressed at a later date.
In one of his final legal battles, Martin passionately maintained that Julia Lumpkin's posture was unbecoming of an elected official, and he filed a detailed complaint against her with the Judicial Qualifications Commission seeking to have her removed from office.
"All of us regret Butch Martin could not be with us to read the decision, as he played a major role in it," said Lovein, Martin's co-counsel.
The timing of the ruling -- Martin's funeral service was Tuesday -- appeared coincidental, and the decision also followed weeks of increased activity in the case. Gray, the senior judge, was taken aback in a telephone interview to learn of Martin's death.
Julia Lumpkin has refused to discuss her parents' estates, but has said the case had no bearing on her decision not to seek re-election this fall. A spokesman said Tuesday that she was "reviewing her options with her attorneys," and would take "the appropriate steps at the appropriate time."
Frank Lumpkin filed suit against his sister in 2010, accusing her of abusing her office in delaying administration of the wills. Julia Lumpkin blamed her brother and filed a countersuit.
She recused herself as judge over the wills after her brother filed suit, but she had remained a personal representative. If Gray's ruling is left to stand, she would only be a beneficiary of the estates and could be held liable for damages.
Attorneys for Julia Lumpkin argued that Frank Lumpkin waived her disqualification years ago -- it was never put in writing -- and that she technically did not appoint herself co-executrix because her chief clerk admitted the wills to probate. Frank Lumpkin's attorneys noted it was still Julia Lumpkin's court that made the appointment, which they argued was void from the start.
"Regardless of whether one is a judge or an ordinary citizen, what the law says you cannot do, you simply cannot do," Lovein and Martin wrote in court filings. "Judge Lumpkin is not 'above the law.'"
In his ruling, Gray cited a state law that says, "The judge of the probate court cannot, during his term of office, be executor, administrator, or guardian, or other agent of a fiduciary nature required to account to his court." The judge added in a footnote he wasn't persuaded the relevant laws -- dating to 1851 -- had somehow become "stale."
"See, e.g., U.S. Constitution effective June 21, 1788, and The Ten Commandments c. 2000BCE," Gray wrote.
Michael B. Kent Jr., an associate professor of law at Atlanta's John Marshall Law School, predicted Gray's ruling would be upheld on appeal. A probate judge serving as executrix of an estate in her own court could "raise serious questions in the minds of litigants and the public at large as to whether the judicial system was fair and transparent," he said.
"Estates are subject to the supervision of the probate courts in part so that those interested in the estate have a neutral and impartial forum for resolving disputes," Kent added. "Allowing probate judges to serve as fiduciaries subject to their own jurisdiction is fraught with perils that are easily avoided by simply prohibiting the appointment."
Julia Lumpkin was elected probate judge in 1998 and has held the office ever since. Her parents, Frank G. Lumpkin Jr. and Edith M. Lumpkin, died in 2000. Frank Lumpkin Jr. was a well-known insurance man and banker who accumulated significant wealth and left millions of dollars to charity and local institutions, gifts that weren't affected by his children's legal wrangling.
Despite Gray's ruling, Lovein said there has been no resolution on the UGA football tickets. "They are a non-probate asset," he said.