Judge disqualifies MLK estate lawyer





ATLANTA — A judge has ruled that a lawyer for the estate of Martin Luther King Jr. cannot participate in a dispute over the ownership of King’s Bible and Nobel Peace Prize.


The slain civil rights icon’s estate, controlled by his sons, is locked in a legal dispute with his daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, over ownership of the items. The Martin Luther King Jr. Estate Inc., which is run by Martin Luther King III and Dexter Scott King, wants to sell the items, while Bernice is opposed to the sale.


Bernice’s lawyers had asked Fulton County Superior Judge Robert McBurney to disqualify the estate’s lawyer, William Hill, and his law firm because he was appointed by another judge to help resolve a similar 2008 dispute between the King children and the entities they control.


McBurney issued an order last week granting that request.


Lawyers for both sides did not immediately respond to e-mails from The Associated Press seeking comment Monday morning. Hill told the Daily Report that he and his client hadn’t decided whether to challenge the order, while Bernice King’s lawyer, Eric Barnum, told the newspaper the order “speaks for itself.”


McBurney noted in his order that Georgia courts have long stressed the importance of a party’s right to be represented by the attorney of its choosing. For that reason, he was reluctant to disqualify Hill but didn’t feel he had any choice, he wrote.


Hill said during a hearing last month that his only responsibility in the 2008 case was to review documents related to Coretta Scott King’s estate and that he didn’t have access to privileged information. McBurney wrote that he did not find that to be true.


In the 2008 case, Bernice and Martin sued their brother, Dexter, and their father’s estate alleging that Dexter was mismanaging the estate. Dexter responded by asking a judge to order Bernice to turn over to the estate all items in her possession that were owned by their father.


The judge in that case appointed Hill as “special master” to help resolve several matters. Among Hill’s duties was to determine the validity of a 1995 agreement in which King’s heirs signed over to the estate their rights to many items they inherited from him, McBurney wrote.


The estate argues in the current dispute that that agreement proves its ownership of the Bible and peace prize medal.


The final order that “resolved” the 2008 case listed the peace prize as one of the items for which the ownership remained unsettled, McBurney wrote.


The Bible and peace prize medal are being held in a safe deposit box controlled by the court pending the outcome of the current dispute.


The estate has also filed a motion to disqualify Barnum and his firm from participating in the current dispute. McBurney has not yet scheduled a hearing on that issue.