Originally created 02/17/99

Judge lets challenge continue



ATLANTA -- Mike Bowers, who represented the state as attorney general for 16 years, has won the right to fight the state in a lawsuit over tree-cutting in front of billboards.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Isaac Jenrette refused to disqualify Mr. Bowers, who is now a private lawyer, from representing the Garden Club of Georgia in a suit that challenges a law resembling one he once defended.

Senior Assistant District Attorney Ray Leher argued during Monday's hearing that Mr. Bowers was violating attorney ethics by working on the dispute.

Mr. Leher, a former Bowers employee, said ethical codes require attorneys who leave public office to refrain from taking jobs with connections or similarities to cases they had handled while serving the public.

The lawsuit in question, filed by the Garden Club against the Georgia Department of Transportation, seeks to overturn a 1998 state law allowing billboard owners to seek permits to cut trees that block their signs along roadsides -- so long as they perform landscaping to compensate for the cutting and pay the state if the value of the landscaping is less than the value of the trees.

The law was an attempt to skirt a 1996 Georgia Supreme Court ruling, which held that an earlier law allowing tree-cutting without compensation violated the state constitution.

The Garden Club suit, filed by Mr. Bowers in December, maintains the 1998 law is just as flawed as the old one.

Mr. Leher said Mr. Bowers played a key role in defending the old law and urged the court to prevent even the appearance that "government attorneys will conduct their offices with an eye on future employment."

Mr. Bowers' attorney in the hearing, Mark Trigg, said that if Mr. Bowers were tossed from the case, it would have profound ramifications across the state.

Mr. Trigg said the attorney general's office was handling about 16,000 cases when Mr. Bowers resigned in 1997 to make an unsuccessful run for governor. Mr. Bowers should not necessarily be barred from working on any case related to them, he said.

Mr. Trigg also argued that Mr. Bowers did not play a major role in defending the first tree-cutting law, and the new statute was passed after he left office.

Judge Jenrette agreed, saying the state's defense would not be harmed by Mr. Bowers' work for the Garden Club.

The judge said it could take him two weeks to decide whether to grant the club's request for a temporary injunction against the new law.