By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield will make a decision by early June as to whether a July 15 special election to replace former board of education member Norreese Haynes will remain on track.
Haynes occupied the seat until five of his colleagues voted to declare his seat vacant on March 3, after a Clayton County police investigation determined he did not live in the county. More than a week later, Haynes filed an appeal and a request for a temporary restraining order to stop the board of education from holding a special election to choose his replacement.
During a hearing on Wednesday, Benefield said she needed time to review the motion to dismiss the case filed on Wednesday by defense attorneys, as well as a response to the motion from the plaintiff's attorneys, and an amendment to add the Clayton County Board of Elections and its director, Annie Bright, as defendants.
The judge plans to make a decision by June 5. She could effectively end the issue in the local court system by approving the motion to dismiss the case, or she can allow it to continue for the foreseeable future by siding with Haynes' attorneys. She will contact attorneys for both sides in writing to announce her decision.
Even though Benefield made no ruling during the hearing, legal representatives for both sides walked out of the courtroom confident the case will soon be resolved.
"We have the merits of this case on our side, the law on our side, and I think we now have the judge on our side as well," said Preston Haliburton, one of Haynes' attorneys.
While the judge did not give a resolution to either side, the hearing was filled with moments of confusion, theatrics and even threats from plaintiff attorneys to take the case to a federal court and ask for federal troops to march into the county, if Benefield did not decide in Haynes' favor.
Winston Denmark, one of the attorneys representing board members David Ashe, Rod Johnson and Yolanda Everett, as well as former board members Ericka Davis and Eddie White, left some of the people in the courtroom confused as he brought up the 2003 Georgia Supreme Court case of Jordan v. Cook, which established a candidate has to contest a scheduled election before it happens.
After Benefield began to push Denmark to make his point, he accused Haynes' attorneys of relying on "outdated statues which have been repealed." He also said Haynes' request to stop the election should be denied because he did not go to Bright to contest his removal within 10 days of being informed of the special election.
"He chose not to pursue it," Denmark said. "He chose instead to go after the board of education for reasons I can not explain."
Denmark later said he does not expect there to be any more hearings on the case.
Haliburton also used Jordan v. Cook to argue Haynes could file his appeal anytime before the special election is held. As Haliburton responded to Denmark's arguments, Benefield had to scold him for getting too excited during his presentation.
"It's not moot until the first person gets in there and votes," Haliburton exclaimed.
"I would appreciate it if you stuck to legal arguments and not theater," Benefield said as she interrupted the attorney.
"I'm sorry your honor, but I'm just concerned about my client," Haliburton replied.
"Then you can be concerned about your client outside the courthouse ... I expect you to act professionally in this court room," Benefield said.
Haliburton then continued in a reserved manner as he argued the case was about Haynes' "fundamental right to vote on behalf of District 8," and he accused the board of education members of being rogues, who will not follow their own policies. He is also planning to use a Secretary of State investigation, which determined Haynes lives in his district, as evidence if the case continues.
"Your honor, we ask that you put him back on the board until they file a proper petition to have him removed from office," Haliburton said.
After the hearing ended, Haliburton called his client a "true statesman" and said the five board members only wanted to get rid of Haynes because he was giving members of the media information about several issues, including: A controversial 2006 land purchase; alleged micromanagement by fellow board members, and the hiring of a former Jonesboro Police Officer -- who was under investigation on charges of child molestation -- to be a temporary bodyguard for former Interim School Superintendent Gloria Duncan.