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Georgia Supreme Court to hear Covington statue removal arguments
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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. — The lead proponent of the legal effort to keep a Civil War memorial standing on the Covington Square is hoping the case will be considered on its merits rather than because it did not pass a legal test.

But another longtime Newton resident said he would like to see it removed because of its divisiveness and the message it sends to future generations that slavery was a noble cause.

The Georgia Supreme Court on Thursday, May 19, was to hear attorneys from both sides on the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ appeal of two lower courts’ rulings favoring the Newton County Board of Commissioners’ plans to remove a Confederate memorial statue from the park in the middle of the Square.

The case has been combined with a similar lawsuit by the Sons group against the Henry County Board of Commissioners for its role in removing a Confederate memorial statue on July 29, 2020, from the McDonough Square.

Newton resident Tiffany Humphries — who filed the original complaint for damages and an injunction against Newton County commissioners — said the merits of the case have "never been heard."

She said a number of issues have not been resolved, such as ownership of the statue and any restrictions placed on the county when the statue was erected there in 1906.

Longtime Newton County civil rights advocate Archie Shepherd said — no matter how the Supreme Court rules — he would like to see it removed and moved to another site "because of what it represents." .

Shepherd suggested putting "something up to date” in its place.

"It just brings back too many memories of what our ancestors have went through,” he said. 

On July 7, 2020, a majority of Newton County commissioners said they wanted to consider the statue’s removal and a special meeting was called for July 14.

Humphries filed a lawsuit on July 13, 2020, in which she alleged the Board "intended to hold a special meeting" the following day "to vote on the removal" of the monument in violation of state law.

The Board then voted on July 14, 2020, to remove the 116-year-old statue. The Newton County and Georgia chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans filed their own lawsuit the next day seeking damages and an injunction alleging the Board had voted to remove it and place it in storage in violation of state law.

A Newton County Superior Court judge heard the two cases on July 20, 2020, and ruled three months later that neither plaintiff had standing to sue because they could not prove they would be injured in a "concrete" way.

In addition, the court ruled that even if they had standing, they would be prevented from suing because the law of sovereign immunity did not allow a government to be sued for taking an action in its official capacity.

Newton County Superior Court Judge John Ott later ordered that neither side remove the statue until all appeals were exhausted.

The state Court of Appeals heard the case and ruled in July 2021 that the “constitutional doctrine of standing still requires that a cause of action involve a concrete and particularized injury” despite state law saying "any person, group, or legal entity .... owning a monument" had a right to bring a lawsuit to prevent the removal of a statue.

The Supreme Court then agreed to review the Newton County appeal coupled with the Henry County case. Humphries and the Sons group argued that the appeals court erroneously said the Georgia Constitution requires them to show individualized injury from the removal.

"Even if the Supreme Court were to determine that an individualized injury is required, they (argue they) have made such a showing in their complaints before the trial courts," according to a summary from the Supreme Court.

In response, the Newton County government said the state Constitution does not specifically give standing to those not suffering injury.

The county also contends the plaintiffs have not shown they would suffer a "concrete" injury required to bring claims against the county rather than a hypothetical injury from its removal.

District 31 State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, and District 157 Rep. Bill Werkheiser, R-Glennville, filed briefs as "friends of the court" in support of the Sons group.

In a brief favoring neither side, a nonprofit consumer protection advocacy group called Georgia Watch Inc. also stated that the Georgia Constitution does not require plaintiffs to show a concrete injury when suing under a statute that authorizes the lawsuit, according to the Supreme Court's summary.

The Court is not expected to rule on the case for months afterward.

Humphries said she hoped a court at any level could consider such factors as its future effect on the enforcement of the current state law protecting monuments.

"Legislation in Georgia is supposed to be there to protect these monuments,” Humphries said. “If that bill is not enough to protect these monuments, then what other monuments could possibly, on a different day, be at risk of coming down?"

Shepherd has said the statue has always been a point of contention for Black city and county residents.

He referred to a law the Georgia General Assembly approved this year that bans teaching children in Georgia that the state or nation are systemically racist.

Critics have said the law targets teachers and stops them from talking about how Blacks view American history.

"The past is the past but why have they not wanted to teach about history, about slavery, and then they've got the statue up there?" Shepherd said.

"They denied that it ever happened and they've got a statue up there that proves that it was happening. I can't understand that.

"If you want to try to deny history then move that statue from up there," he said.