By Justin Boron
A federal court hearing Wednesday regarding Sheriff Victor Hill's treatment of 26 reinstated sheriff employees revealed a thin cross section of a voluminous legal case, which one attorney involved said would result in a monumental decision for the county, if not the state.
The 23rd floor courtroom in downtown Atlanta held the makings of a battle that could be fought in courts as high as the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, said Harlan Miller, the attorney for 31 disgruntled sheriff employees.
The immediate consequence of Wednesday's arguments did little to remedy intense conflict coming out of the county government.
But they did open up the larger possibility of revisiting a Court of Appeals ruling that gave a certain degree of immunity to sheriffs facing civil rights lawsuits.
Through a temporary restraining order, U.S. District Court Judge Charles A. Moye Jr. prohibited Hill from taking any further personnel or retaliatory action. The order comes as a Superior Court judge is set to rule today on the status of another temporary restraining order issued Jan. 4 to restore the jobs of the 27 sheriff employees fired by Hill.
While the ruling did not restore the jobs of the sheriff's employees, it could be the seed for heavy consequences in Clayton County and possibly in the 158 other county sheriffs in the state, Miller said.
Don Foster and Evan Kaine, who are separate legal representatives for Hill, cited a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling which protects the sheriff from litigation as an officer of the state.
Miller said the ruling needed clarification and could easily be overturned because it was a 6 to 5 ruling when it was last litigated in 2002.
However, he said ultimately, the Hill controversy could reach the question of who is liable for a sheriff's illegal actions - the state or the county for which he works.
Terry Norris, the executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, Inc., lauded the 2002 ruling, which distinguished sheriffs from their county governing authority, protecting them from certain lawsuits and greatly reducing the liability of county governments.
The question of liability gains pertinence for Clayton County given the potential size of damages, which, if awarded in the federal suit facing Hill, could be as high as $1 million for each client, Miller said.
The impact of those size damages could be horrendous for the county government, said Dan Martin, the county director of finance.
With lawsuits still piling up, he said the combined weight of legal fees and damages could result in the need for a special assessment on the county's tax bills.
During the arguments Wednesday, Miller painstakingly rehashed the details spilling from Hill's first day in office when he fired 27 employees and placed armed guards on the roof of Harold R. Banke Justice Center.
He accused Hill of a surreptitious "mass execution" of "terror, retaliation, harassment, intimidation, and oppression" on the employees whose average length of service was 20 years.
"Lawlessness, chaos and disorder is the order of the day in Clayton County as we speak," Miller said. "Victor Hill is the author of that chaos."
Miller also broadened his accusations to include many of Hill's recent promotions. He frequently named Reginald Lindsay, Jon Antoine, and several other current deputies as co-conspirators.
When it came time for Hill's defense, Foster argued the matter belonged in superior court and referred to retired Senior Superior Court Judge Ben Miller's anticipated ruling today.
But Harlan Miller responded by saying none of his clients were plaintiffs in that matter.
After the hearing, Hill said he had little response to the tinderbox of inflammatory statements.
"We respect the court and will comply with its ruling and work within the system," he said.
Hill did deflect claims that he conspired with employees before he entered office.
"Basically, I have just been planning my administration since the day I won," he said.
Garland Watkins and Larry Bartlett, two of the high-ranking deputies dismissed by Hill, sat easily beside their lawyer during the hearing.
When the judge had ruled, Watkins expressed his relief and said conditions at the Sheriff's Office have not been comfortable since his return to work.
"(The ruling) curtails his actions," he said.
After issuing the temporary restraining order, the judge gave Hill's lawyers three weeks to prepare an evidentiary hearing which could lead to the restoration of the sheriff's employees' jobs.
His delay was granted in part because an apparent conflict has emerged on the issue of who will defend Hill.
Although the county government has opposed Hill, it is obligated to provide him defense in his official capacity, said County Attorney Don Comer.
Moye laughed at the idea of two parts of the county government in opposition to each other.
"There is a county down there suing itself," Moye said.
Miller was visibly frustrated with the delay, pacing and wiping his brow as the judge schedule the next hearing for Feb. 23.
He said he understood the need for the long recess. But meanwhile, he said his clients were left to suffer.
"My people are being dangled over the side of a cliff," Miller said.