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Judge rules for Newton County government on statue removal
Inscription on one side of Confederate memorial statue on the Covington Square. - photo by Tom Spigolon

COVINGTON, Ga. — The county chairman says the government "will move forward in the process” of removing a Confederate statue after a judge’s order today dismissing two groups’ pleas to keep it on the Covington Square.

Superior Court Judge John Ott issued an order today, Sept. 14, which dismissed complaints from a Newton County resident and a Southern heritage group seeking damages and injunctive relief.

Ott said they did not prove they would suffer “actual” damages by the removal, and also were barred from bringing a legal action against the government. 

County Chairman Marcello Banes today said in a statement, “The Board of Commissioners stands by its decision to remove the Confederate statue.”

“Judge Ott determined our legal argument was sound and just and we will move forward in the process,” Banes said.

Newton County resident Tiffany Humphries and local and state Sons of Confederate Veterans groups filed for the injunction to stop the removal of the century-old statue soon after the Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 July 14 for the action.

The judge’s order today followed his July 20 request that both sides of the issue file legal briefs containing their reasoning why he should rule for them.

Ott wrote in today’s order that Humphries and the Sons of Confederate Veterans failed to show they met “the constitutional and procedural concept” that gave them legal standing to seek damages.

He said neither proved they suffered an injury “in fact” — defined as being injured in a “concrete” way rather than in an “abstract” way, such as affecting their belief in a cause or religion.

“In the present case, it is clear that neither petitioner has sustained any actual damages when they are seeking an injunction,” Ott wrote.

“Even were the Confederate Monument removed, it is questionable if the petitioners would have standing.”

He said the two groups claimed that a 2019 state law that toughened standards for a local government to remove a statue gave them legal standing to sue for damages.

“But, again, the court will emphasize that there are no damages at this time,” Ott wrote.

He said the General Assembly’s approval of the 2019 law also removed a previous provision allowing “a party to seek an injunction” against a local government.

Ott, in the July 20 hearing, also said he wanted to hear the two groups’ arguments about the county’s claim of sovereign immunity. 

Sovereign immunity is the concept in common law — that the state of Georgia adopted — stating that governments cannot be sued.

Ott wrote in today’s order that the two groups did not persuade the Court that counties were not included “in the extension of sovereign immunity to the state and its departments and agencies” in the state constitution.

The 2019 law also does not expressly waive sovereign immunity for a local government, Ott wrote.

“The Court finds that neither the Constitution of the state of Georgia nor the General Assembly has either expressly or impliedly waived sovereign immunity” in the 2019 law, Ott wrote.

“For the foregoing reasons, the Court finds that the petitioners lack standing to bring the present suit … and, even if they did have standing, the doctrine of sovereign immunity protects the county from suit,” he wrote.

The judge said on July 20 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 state’s courts for the public to see.

Representatives of Humphries and the Sons of Confederate Veterans did not immediately return requests for comment.