A federal judge has sanctioned Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones for unprofessional and unethical behavior over her conduct in a civil suit brought against her by a former employee, a ruling that could indelibly tarnish her reputation as an attorney and her ability to carry out the duties of her office.
U.S. District Judge R. Stan Baker of the Southern District of Georgia said he made the extraordinary decision after a pattern of “willful” misrepresentations and omissions of fact by Cook Jones to evade a deposition in the suit in which a former assistant district attorney has accused her of sexual discrimination and overseeing a hostile workplace.
The judge’s 50-page decision didn’t touch on the merits of these accusations. Instead, it paints an extraordinarily critical portrait of Chatham’s lead prosecutor as someone willing to mislead judges and plaintiffs as she struggles to handle the challenges of her office — behavior, the judge said, that “deeply troubled” him.
“Cook Jones’ pattern of compounding and willful failures demand significant sanctions. She shirked her discovery obligations, failed to honor her word that she would appear for her deposition, mocked this Court’s Orders, and made material misrepresentations to the Court,” Judge Baker wrote in the ruling made public Friday.
“The Court is deeply troubled that she would misrepresent facts of any level. The duty of candor ‘reflects the truism that it is essential that members of the bar be trustworthy and that their statements be completely reliable. Public confidence in the integrity of both the bench and the bar requires no less,’” he added.
The judge, noting the highly unusual circumstances that prompted him to sanction a party before his court, said he intended to act in a way that would prevent others from acting as egregiously as Cook Jones. He ruled her in default and ordered her to pay all costs incurred by the plaintiff as he considers his ruling on the merits of the case.
Cook Jones did not respond to multiple requests for comment. She has 14 days to respond to the ruling.
Department faces challenges
Judge Baker’s rebuke comes amid escalating dissatisfaction among Chatham County judges, the DA’s staff and victims advocates alike about Cook Jones’ management of prosecutions.
She unseated the incumbent DA and her former boss, Meg Heap, in November 2020 after a highly partisan campaign in which outside money played a significant role. Heap, a Republican who is white, and her supporters used racist and Anti-Semitic campaign imagery in failed attempts to undermine trust in Cook Jones, a Black Democrat who supports progressive criminal justice reform.
Since taking over in 2021, Cook Jones has faced an exodus of more than two dozen prosecutors from her office. Like many other DAs in Georgia, she has struggled to cope with the mountainous backlog of cases caused by the judicial shutdown during the Covid-19 epidemic.
At the same time, she has been the focus of ongoing partisan ire. In May, Gov. Brian Kemp, a close ally of Heap, came to Savannah to sign the state’s controversial new law that created an oversight board with the power to unseat Georgia district attorneys. One of the sponsors of the bill, state Rep. Jesse Petrea, a Republican from Savannah who supported Heap in the 2020 elections, has been one of the most vocal critics of Cook Jones.
Amid the political scuffles, Chatham County’s judges, especially those in Superior Court, have become deeply frustrated with Cook Jones, complaining that chaos in her understaffed office has ensnarled the courts and hampered the pursuit of justice in trials concerning the most violent crimes.
Adding to Cook Jones’ problems has been the sex discrimination suit filed against her in 2021 by Skye Musson, a former assistant district attorney who left the DA’s office in the summer of that year.
Cook Jones’ conduct in relation to Musson’s complaint is the focus of the judicial sanctions against her.
Ruling lays out problems
Judge Baker, in his ruling, laid out a detailed timeline in which he faults Cook Jones with intentionally misleading both his court and a Chatham Superior Court judge in multiple instances as a way to evade a deposition this spring for the Musson case. A deposition is testimony given under oath in preparation of trial that allows parties to discover pertinent facts and details of a case and set court strategy.
According to Baker, Cook Jones lied to get around the obligation to allow Musson’s lawyers to question her under oath about her job as DA. Over an eight-month period she requested delays to schedule the deposition, citing the responsibilities of her office.
When she finally agreed to a date for the matter, April 11, 2023, Cook Jones falsely pleaded a conflicting schedule related to a rape case being heard in Chatham County Superior Court. Judge Baker, however, determined that Cook Jones unnecessarily named herself as lead prosecutor to evade being deposed in Musson’s case.
At the time, the DA’s failure to appear for the federal deposition raised eyebrows.
Musson accused Jones of manufacturing excuses. Cook Jones told The Current in the spring that the felony case “takes precedence over a civil matter.”
Judge Baker this week agreed with Musson, calling the DA’s conduct “contemptuous.”
“Cook Jones depicts her failure to appear for her deposition as the result of an ‘unavoidable conflict’ between her responsibilities as Chatham County District Attorney and her obligations as a litigant in this case. This is simply not true. Cook Jones’ repeated failures were not caused by tension between her obligations to this Court and the Superior Court, but rather by her disregard of her duties to both courts,” Judge Baker’s ruled.
“Cook Jones shunned multiple orders from this Court and refused to attend her deposition on the date she previously proposed due to a conflict she created. To add further insult to injury, in her attempt to explain away her contemptuous conduct, Cook Jones now makes materially false statements,” he added.