By Justin Boron
Clayton County sheriff employees are protected from being dismissed without just cause under the county's Civil Service Act, a judge ruled Thursday, rejecting Sheriff Victor Hill's long-standing assertion that he had the legal right to fire employees as part of his reorganization plan.
Sticking to his argument that sheriff employees were not appropriately brought under the county civil service umbrella, Hill and his team of attorneys immediately said they were not surprised by the ruling and would appeal it.
"We're going to look at this as round one, and we're going to get ready for round two," Hill said.
For now, however, Superior Court Judge Ben Miller's decision provides comfort to all of the Sheriff's Office employees who have spent nearly three months wondering whether their jobs were subject to the whim of the sheriff, said Maj. Doug Massengale, one of the high ranking employees part of a federal discrimination suit against the sheriff.
"I'm happy for all," he said.
Similar to Judge Miller's contempt ruling against Hill in February, the courtroom Thursday became a scene of emotional relief for the sheriff employees as they embraced amid a crowd of attorneys, reporters, and citizens pouring into the fourth floor hall of the Harold R. Banke Justice Center in Jonesboro.
"They can go home safe, knowing if they do their job, they're going to keep their job," Maj. Larry Bartlett said.
As Hill left, his own group of supporters - identified by shirts with the phrase "Support Our Sheriff" - formed a processional of applause and cheers.
During arguments before the judge, Brenton Bean, an attorney in Hill's defense team, accused the plaintiffs of trying to shoehorn themselves into civil service coverage.
He said the language in the more than 40-year old civil service legislation was vague in respect to the sheriff, an elected officer of the state.
Because the sheriff is conveyed his power as an officer of the state, Bean said any legislation that would weaken his or her right to hire and fire employees would have to be strictly construed in the enabling legislation by the General Assembly.
While Bean made his argument, Harlan Miller, the attorney for the employees dismissed in January, sat expressionless with his glasses raised to his forehead, propping his head up with his hand.
But during his own argument, an animated Miller walked the judge through the history of the civil service law, which originated in 1963 in the state legislature, often waving his hands and gesturing to Hill.
He also pointed out that sheriff employees are paid in county funds and said a sheriff's job doesn't require him to reorganize for policy setting reasons.
"The sheriff maintains a jail. He serves civil papers," Miller said. "He is not a policy maker . . . he is not the President of the United States. He doesn't have a cabinet."
When both sides finished, Judge Miller ruled quickly.
But he left the community with some advice.
"I do hope you people go somewhere and dig a hole and bury the hatchet," Judge Miller said. "What you're doing to this county is hurting it."
In addition to the appeal of Miller's decision, Hill faces a federal discrimination suit.