No bias in civil service ruling, judge says

By Justin Boron

Superior Court Judge Ben Miller's ruling last month that sheriff employees are covered by the Clayton County civil service act did not result from any personal prejudice against Sheriff Victor Hill, another judge ruled Tuesday.

Attorneys for Hill, who was not present at the hearing Tuesday, alleged in a motion for recusal that Miller's comments on the bench following his ruling March 24 exposed a bias that the judge should have acknowledged before the proceeding.

Opposing counsel Harlan Miller, said the motion was nothing more than "sour grapes."

Senior Judge Penn McWhorter ruled against Hill's attorneys, saying there was no appearance of impropriety in Judge Miller's statement and his past working relationship with the county.

Immediately after his ruling nearly a month ago, Judge Miller spoke of his 35 years of experience with Clayton County.

"Historically, at least in my active time as a prosecutor and as a judge, the people of Clayton County have been blessed with a sheriff's department with a fine reputation, with good personnel, with good morale, that did an excellent job," he said, according to court transcripts in an attorney briefs.

Rolf Jones, one of Hill's attorneys, argued that the judge, by listing accolades of previous sheriffs, implied Hill was a poor one.

He also charged that the Sheriff's Office during the 1970s was all white.

"Today, it is not," Jones said.

At the end of the civil service hearing, Judge Miller also said, "I do hope you people will go somewhere, dig a hole, and bury the hatchet because what you have done to your county is hurting it."

Jones said the judge was biased in his insinuation that Hill had caused the county some harm.

Miller, who represents the 27 fired sheriff employees, countered that the judge was addressing a broad range of people involved in the conflict stemming from Hill's contentious firings Jan. 3.

He also said the implication of racial discrimination was baseless.

When reached at his office in Thomaston, Judge Miller, only aware of the ruling after a reporter notified him, declined to comment, citing judicial ethics.

In addition to hearing the civil service question, Miller also found Hill in contempt for violating an order to restore the status quo.

Sheriff employees' protection under the county civil service system came under question after Hill fired the 27 employees without just cause. Hill maintains that the employees were not protected by civil service, giving him the right to reorganize at will. His attorneys say they will appeal both the civil service ruling and Tuesday's ruling to deny Miller's recusal.