ATLANTA — Lawyers used grammar rules as much as Georgia laws in their arguments Monday before the Supreme Court over whether the state is required to turn over Kia Motors’ hiring records.
Gov. Nathan Deal has said the records need to be kept secret to allow the state to compete with other states in enticing large employers to bring jobs to Georgia.
The case on appeal to the state’s highest court involves the government’s role in helping the automaker staff its $1.2 billion factory in
West Point, but the outcome could apply to other companies lured by state incentives.
Four members of the United Auto Workers labor union are suing to get access to documents the state has in order to see whether the company had a stated policy to discriminate against union members.
They say the state’s Open Records Act entitles them to the papers, but government lawyers contend a change in the law to protect proprietary information enacted after the suit was filed removes that access.
Russ Willard, a senior assistant attorney general, told the justices the General Assembly has authority to change the law retroactively because access to the state’s documents was just a privilege and not a right.
“These are not rights that arise out of common law,” he said. “These exist out of legislative grace.”
Justices David Nahmias and Harold Melton took turns hammering Willard on that point. Nahmias compared it to removing a tax deduction after a person’s tax returns were already in the mail. Melton said the attorneys fees the union members hope to get in their suit constitute a “property right” that prohibits retroactive laws.
But the justices didn’t balk at Willard’s reading of the law’s punctuation or his criticism of the way the four union members view it.
“With apologies for sounding like a ninth-grade English teacher trying to make (the union members) see what their persistent and pernicious error in grammar is, the comma applied in the disjunctive ‘or’ removes any doubt the General Assembly created three distinct categories of documents exempt from disclosure,” Willard said.
Atlanta lawyer Gerald Weber, representing the foursome, argued the placement of commas blocks the release of just two types of documents. He wasn’t convincing Justice Keith Blackwell.
“Tell me why I’m mistaken as a matter of grammar,” Blackwell said.
Nahmias broke in, “Maybe you want to spend some of your time on a stronger argument.”
So Weber switched topics and said federal law and the state constitution prohibit retroactive laws designed to punish people.
“The purpose of that retroactive clause was to take away our lawsuit,” he said.
The other justices were mostly silent, offering no clues about their thinking on the case. The seven of them will issue a joint decision in the next six months.
If they rule in favor of the state and Kia, it would effectively end the case with none of the documents being released.
If they decide for the union members, the case would go back to Fulton County Superior Court for a full-blown trial.