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., granted Frank Lumpkin’s motion for summary judgment in the case, saying Julia Lumpkin’s appointment as co-executrix was void from the start and made “in direct contravention” to Georgia law.
“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, Lovein said, and are to be addressed later.
Julia Lumpkin, who announced in May she would not seek re-election this year, has refused to discuss her parents’ estates, which have remained unsettled in her court for more than a decade. She said through a spokesman today that she is “reviewing her options with her attorneys,” and would take “the appropriate steps at the appropriate time.”
“She and her attorneys will not have any further statement at this time,” said the spokesman, Brad C. Dodds.
The ruling was a posthumous victory for attorney Frank K. Martin, a former Columbus mayor who represented Frank Lumpkin and died Sunday after a lengthy bout with pancreatic cancer. The Lumpkin case was one of Martin’s final legal battles, and he had passionately maintained that Julia Lumpkin’s posture was contrary to the law and unbecoming of an elected official.
“All of us regret Butch Martin could not be with us to read the decision, as he played a major role in it,” Lovein said.
The timing of the ruling — Martin’s funeral services were held today in Columbus — appeared coincidental, and the decision 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.
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.” In a footnote, Gray said he wasn’t persuaded the laws cited by Frank Lumpkin and his attorneys — dating back to 1851 — were some how “stale.”
“See, e.g. U.S. Constitution effective June 21, 1788, and The Ten Commandments c. 2000BCE,” Gray wrote.
Attorneys for Julia Lumpkin had argued that Frank Lumpkin waived her disqualification years ago, and that she technically did not appoint herself as 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.
“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.’”
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 bequeathed millions of dollars to charity and local institutions, gifts that were not affected by his children’s legal wrangling.
Frank Lumpkin III filed suit against his sister in 2010, accusing of her of abusing her office by delaying the administration of the wills. Martin had attributed the impasse to a bitter disagreement over University of Georgia season football tickets. Julia Lumpkin, meanwhile, blamed her brother for the delays and filed a countersuit against him.
Julia Lumpkin 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.
Update: Court ruling removes Probate Judge Julia Lumpkin from her parents’ estates
August 15, 2012