Richard Hyatt

Richard Hyatt: MCSD’s legendary legal legacy

The history of the Muscogee County School District dates back to New Year’s Day in 1950 -- and so does the board of education’s relationship with Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis & Rothschild.

That the school board does business with one of the city’s oldest law firms is not unusual. That the board hasn’t entertained bids from other law firms along the way is.

A. Edward Smith, a name almost forgotten in local legal circles, became legal counsel when the city and county school systems merged in 1950. Voters approved that union in 1948, hoping to bring the quality of education for students living on the fringes of Muscogee County up to par with their counterparts in town.

At that time, Smith was a player. He was a key member of a Hatcher, Stubbs firm whose beginnings are traced to 1872 when Samuel Bess Hatcher, the firm’s founder, opened his practice in Columbus. One of his early partners, John Peabody, was school board president from 1888 to 1894 and is considered to be its founding father.

Smith was president of the Georgia Bar Association in 1951 and a rising star in Republican Party circles. In 1950, he was one of the original officers of the brand new independent school district. He stayed in that position until 1961 when he resigned to run for governor of Georgia.

Smith died in a Meriwether County car crash in 1962, just as he was beginning the first Republican campaign for governor in the state since Reconstruction.

J. Madden Hatcher succeeded Smith with the school board. Since then, the list of lawyers has included A.J. Land, Jim Humes, Chuck Staples and Greg Ellington -- all members of that same law firm.

Responding to questions about the firm’s relationship with the school board, Ellington mentioned the pride Hatcher, Stubbs feels about the legal representation it has provided.

“Through that relationship, the firm has developed a body of institutional knowledge and valuable experience that is brought to bear in assisting the district with its obligations under the many state and federal laws that govern the day to day operations of Georgia schools,” Ellington wrote in an email. “Many state and federal laws are unique to the realm of public education.”

Ellington noted that his firm is not the only law firm doing business with the district. Others handle specialized issues such as bonds and workers comp. He said Hatcher, Stubbs assists the school district with civil rights laws, employment law, construction law, contract negotiations, real estate and zoning laws.

“We appreciate that it is a privilege to serve one of this region’s most important institutions and to that end continually strive to provide the highest level of legal representation,” he wrote.

After 61 years, questions are being asked about this relationship. Law firms that might want to bid on the school business aren’t being afforded that opportunity.

That opportunity might be forthcoming.

No one is questioning the propriety or performance of Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis & Rothschild or its attorneys. The question is whether other law firms might be just as effective and maybe less costly. An in-house lawyer might also be worth consideration.

Wonder how Edward Smith would rule on that question?