Georgia Supreme Court hears Clayton civil service debate

By Justin Boron

The cloud of controversy hanging over the Clayton County Sheriff's Office reached into the state Supreme Court on Monday as the seven-judge panel heard arguments on one of the central questions reverberating from the sheriff's contentious firings on Jan. 3.

Were the 27 employees Sheriff Victor Hill ordered escorted off the property under armed guard protected from being fired en masse and without due process?

The ruling could impact other employee merit systems around the state. But mainly it would either put to bed Hill's long-standing contention that sheriff employees work at his pleasure or it will possibly empower the sheriff to bring in his own administration unfettered by the county's personnel law.

There is no indication how soon the justices could rule on the issue.

Hill and his attorneys are hoping the court will overturn a Superior Court judge's February ruling that says sheriff employees are protected by the county's civil service system, in turn making the firings illegal.

It would be the first major legal victory for Hill since the winding and financially strenuous tour of litigation was sparked in January. So far, more than $600,000 in legal fees have been devoted to the case, said Michael Smith, the county's chief staff attorney.

A loss for Hill would add more ammunition to a pending federal discrimination suit against him in which 34 current and former sheriff employees allege they were victims of an age, race, and political conspiracy to be thrown out of their jobs.

Harlan Miller, the attorney for the 34 plaintiffs, told the state Supreme Court justices that for 40 years, prior sheriffs had acknowledged that their employees were protected under the civil service guidelines.

“The new sheriff that came to town,” ignored that, he said.

Later, Miller said of the dismissals, “You have to have a reason, you have to tell us why, and you have to give us a chance to fight it.”

How much the ruling will affect other sheriff's offices around the state wasn't exactly clear. But it did appear to be weighing on the mind of at least one justice.

During the arguments, Justice Robert Benham asked attorneys if the court's ruling would reach into other jurisdictions.

John Stivarius, Hill's attorney, said he didn't expect it to have “widespread, sweeping implications.”

But Miller said it would have a “great impact.”

Terry Norris, the executive vice president for the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, said it could have a case-by-case consequences for other sheriff offices, but he added that few sheriffs around the state have civil service agreements with county governments.

As a rule, he said the advocacy organization recommends that sheriffs do not enter into a county civil service law because it limits their authority over their employees.

“It really is a hurdle to conducting your office,” he said.

Norris said the law complicates the elimination of poorly performing employees and inhibits efficient operation of a sheriff's office.

Hill has sought to characterize the office he inherited as dysfunctional, frequently citing budget overruns and hangings in the county jail. He also has indirectly insinuated in the media that some of those problems may have been the justification for the firings.

Hill said he would implement his own independent merit and due process system for his employees if the court rules in his favor.