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Opponents of Confederate statue removal appeal Newton judge's ruling
0705 CovNews Statue
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. — One of two groups seeking to halt the county's planned removal of a statue from the Covington Square has taken its case to the state Court of Appeals.

The action could lead to the century-old Confederate statue remaining on the Square for a while longer.

Newton County Superior Court Judge John Ott issued an order Monday, Sept. 14, which dismissed complaints from Newton County resident Tiffany Humphries and Southern heritage group Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) that sought damages and injunctive relief from the planned removal of the memorial.

The SCV immediately filed a notice Monday that it was appealing Ott’s order to the Georgia Court of Appeals — saying the order was “contrary to law and the evidence.”

County Chairman Marcello Banes said in a statement the Board of Commissioners “stands by its decision to remove the Confederate statue” following its July 14 vote.

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

The judge’s order Monday followed his request in a July 20 hearing that both sides of the issue file papers detailing legal arguments why he should rule for them.

He also 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. Appeals could delay final court action on removal of the statue for months, Ott said.

In Monday’s order, Ott wrote that Humphries and the SCV failed to show in their filings they met “the constitutional and procedural concept” that gave them legal standing to seek damages from the county because of the planned removal.

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.”

A 2019 amendment to state law toughened standards that a local government must meet before removing a statue. Ott wrote that the two groups claimed the amendment 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 amendment also removed a provision allowing “a party to seek an injunction” against a local government.

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

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

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

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.

Humphries and local and state SCV groups filed for the injunction to stop the removal soon after the Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 July 14 for the action to remove the statue, which was erected on the Covington Square in 1906.

An attorney for Humphries did not immediately return a call for comment.