The Georgia Supreme Court has overturned rulings by a local judge and the state appeals court, saying that Columbus residents have the right to sue the city over a park some say was promised at the Columbus Public Library.
However, the decision penned by Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears states that the high court’s reversal of lower court decisions doesn’t mean someone with the right to sue can halt a government’s actions for a prolonged time. In addition, Sears writes that governments can still petition courts to throw out such cases.
That’s exactly what an attorney for the defendants plans to do.
The court’s decision, published Monday, states that both Muscogee County Superior Court Judge Doug Pullen and the Georgia Court of Appeals were wrong to decide that city residents “had to prove the merits of their case at the preliminary hearing to have standing to maintain the action.”
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The decision stems from a lawsuit filed in July 2007 by former library board member David Rothschild, and others, who claimed that residents were promised a park in the campaign for the 1999 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which funded the library’s construction. Pullen ruled Aug. 29, 2007, that the plaintiffs didn’t have the authority to sue the government. His decision was upheld by a three-judge appeals court panel, and the full appeals court declined to hear the case, prompting Rothschild to appeal to the high court.
Attorney Josh McKoon, who represents the plaintiffs, said this moves the case back to Aug. 29, 2007.
“Today’s unanimous decision by the Supreme Court of Georgia confirms the right of taxpayers to petition their government in court and hold public officials accountable for spending their money,” McKoon said.
Attorney Jorge Vega, who represents the defendants, said Monday’s decision was very limited and technical in its scope. The merits of the case weren’t the issue.
“... We conclude that trial courts should not preliminarily resolve factual disputes regarding the merits of a claim in order to resolve a standing issue,” Sears writes.
McKoon said that was the basis for the appeal — that the case was short circuited before its merits were ever heard.
When attorneys for both sides stood before Pullen in August 2007, they were present for a temporary restraining order hearing in which Rothschild sought to stop the government from spending SPLOST money. Pullen tossed the case out that day, and in January McKoon argued before the high court that the bar was set too high if his client had to prove his case was winnable at the August 2007 hearing.
Vega said his clients will do what the decision suggests.
“In addition, the government may move to dismiss the complaint on the merits ... or may move for summary judgment on the merits ...” Sears writes.
The defendants haven’t yet filed such a motion. At the August hearing, which was for a temporary restraining order, the plaintiffs called five witnesses, Vega said. They couldn’t prove their argument, and the government asked for the suit to be dismissed, which happened.
Vega said the motion for summary judgement — which would ask the court to dismiss the case — would be filed in about two weeks.
Upon hearing that, McKoon said he’d ask for the six months of case preparation time he said the law allows him.
“What I hope for, before we get into any of those things, is there’s a motion for mediation pending,” McKoon said.
McKoon filed a motion asking Pullen to order the case to mediation — a process McKoon said his clients have expressed interest in for two years.
Vega said the remaining $6.1 million from the SPLOST for the library has either been spent or is committed.