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Judge dismisses BOE member's ethics challenge

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

A Clayton County Superior Court judge on Tuesday dismissed one of Clayton County Board of Education Member Michael King's cases against the school board, and its ethics commission, because it mirrors a similar one he has before another superior court judge.

King wanted Superior Court Judge Geronda Carter to rule on the constitutionality of the 2008 state law that created a new code of ethics and an ethics commission for the Clayton County school board. He also has a case pending before Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield seeking a judicial review of the school board's vote to remove him from office in March. In addition to the judicial review, King is asking Benefield to rule on the constitutionality of the ethics law, code and commission. King is allowed to keep his seat while his appeal is pending.

During an hour-long hearing on Tuesday, attorneys for the school board and the ethics commission argued that Carter should dismiss the case before her because having two judges deal with the constitutionality issue opened the door for conflicting judgments that would leave the issue unresolved.

"You may rule one way, and Judge Benefield may rule another way, and we'd have conflicting rulings," ethics commission Attorney Winston Denmark told Carter.

"The court, having heard the defendant's argument, and having heard Mr. King's response, grants the motion to dismiss," Carter said. "Mr. King is not prejudiced by this ruling because of the other matter pending."

Carter's ruling leaves a decision on the constitutionality of the ethics law, code and commission in Benefield's hands. King said after Tuesday's hearing that he plans to file an appeal of Carter's decision with the Georgia Court of Appeals.

No date has been set for Benefield to hear the case pending before her.

King, an attorney, has repeatedly said the law which created the school board's ethics code, and commission, is unconstitutional because Georgia code includes another ethics code for elected officials.

In February, the ethics commission had King removed from the board because he had continued to represent a former Clayton County teacher, Lakeetra Mason, in a lawsuit against the school system even after becoming a school board member.

King filed a lawsuit challenging the decision and asking a judge to rule on the constitutionality of the ethics law. His second suit, now before Benefield, was filed after the school board affirmed the ethics commission's decision to remove him from office.

King told Carter he is still under contract to represent the teacher, whose case was dismissed in September by a federal judge, but he cannot act on her behalf while the ethics law is still being enforced.

"I cannot do anything because the defendants want to enforce two unconstitutional statutes [the Clayton ethics law and a 2009 revision to the law]," King said. "That's why it is important for this court to rule in this matter. If the court doesn't, and I proceed to prepare Ms. Mason to continue with her case, I face additional allegations, additional hearings and additional sanctions. If I do nothing, I violate my contract with Ms. Mason."

School board Attorney Jacob Zuniga argued that King's request to have the ethics law declared unconstitutional is invalid.

"Mr. King would have you believe this is a blanket provision that prohibits all special laws from being enacted," Zuniga said. "The constitution itself, in the very section Mr. King is citing, provides for police powers ... The law was designed to protect the general welfare of the students of Clayton County."