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Both sides in court fight over Covington Square statue awaiting judge's ruling
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The 116-year-old Confederate memorial statue is a centerpiece of the park in the middle of the Covington Square. - photo by Tom Spigolon

COVINGTON, Ga. — Groups on both sides of a court fight about a Confederate memorial’s removal from the Covington Square were awaiting a judge’s final ruling last week after a Sept. 2 deadline passed for filings in the case.

A Newton County resident and a national Southern heritage advocacy group joined local elected officials in filing papers that Superior Court Judge John Ott on July 20 requested they state their legal positions about the planned removal of the 114-year-old granite statue.

Tiffany Humphries of Covington and the Sons of Confederate Veterans filed for an injunction to stop the removal soon after the Newton County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 on July 14 to do so.

Humphries raised funds for legal costs through donations from area residents who attended two events in early July.

After a July 20 hearing on the injunction, Ott set a deadline of Aug. 3 for Humphries, Sons attorney Kyle King and county government attorney Megan Martin to file legal briefs that included their reasoning why he should rule for them.

He later extended the deadline to Sept. 2 to allow Humphries time to hire an attorney to file the paperwork — after which Peachtree City attorney Walker Chandler began representing her.

Ott also ordered the county not to remove the statue while the case was pending.  

The judge told both sides they needed to be prepared to address specific issues before he would rule in the case.

He said he interpreted laws related to the case as showing him those seeking to halt the removal must have been damaged in a “concrete” way rather than in an “abstract” way — such as affecting their belief in a cause or religion. 

Statue supporters should show they had legal standing for challenging the county government’s plans, Ott said.

Ott also wanted to hear arguments about the county’s right to claim sovereign immunity — the concept that governments cannot be sued for operating in their legal capacity. 

Chandler wrote that local governments acting to remove monuments out of fear of “mobs demanding social justice” — a reference to opponents in other parts of the U.S. forcibly toppling statues — will lead to further demands for desecration of historical objects and “take such … actions outside the scope of any conceivable sovereign immunity protections.”

He wrote that Humphries had legal standing to halt the removal because “the law allows any citizen to file actions … to stop what the defendants are trying to do.

The attorney also said the county proved it was “bending to mob rule” when Martin told Ott during the July 20 hearing she had been threatened with physical harm by those wanting the Covington statue taken down.

Sons of Confederate Veterans attorneys, including Kyle King and Daniel A. Coleman, in their filings included an affidavit from State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who sponsored the 2019 law that set strict guidelines local governments had to meet before removing monuments.

Mullis said the bill sponsors’ intent was to waive sovereign immunity and allow lawsuits to stop governments from removing them, according to the affidavit. 

County attorneys, including Martin and Patrick Jaugstetter, said in their filings that opponents failed to show they suffered sufficient injury “in fact” to allow them to stop the county’s action.

They also cited cases to show the county government could claim sovereign immunity and that only the Georgia General Assembly can remove it.

The 2019 law protecting such monuments from removal by local governments statewide also eliminated the right of residents to seek court intervention — amending a law that had allowed it before April 2019, they said.

They also wrote that state law clearly stated a state legislator’s testimony about “the motive or intent underlying” of any legislation “is inadmissible in judicial proceedings.”

Ott has said he hoped the losing side in the case would appeal his ruling so that all issues about removal of the statue are fully discussed in the courts for the public to see.