Originally created 03/09/06

Written briefs expand debate



The attorneys involved in Woody Merry's legal challenge of Augusta commissioners' use of abstentions have fired off another round of legal arguments.

Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet heard oral arguments in Richmond County Superior Court last month and the attorneys already followed up with written arguments. But the judge's recent request for each attorney to write up a proposed order reflecting his ideal outcome generated the recent flurry of briefs.

Mr. Merry, a self-described community activist, petitioned the court last month. He asks for a ruling over the legality of commissioners' use of abstentions to prevent majority-wins in general, and specifically Commissioner Marion Williams' use of abstentions in January to prevent a clear six-vote selection for mayor pro tem in January.

Mr. Williams, who won the previous year's commission vote for mayor pro tem, continues to fill the post.

Judge Overstreet said earlier this week that he hoped to have a decision ready before the end of the week. That was before the recent briefs were filed.

"Recently, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in the case of Bivens v. State ... that Georgia courts are not authorized to render advisory opinions," read the brief filed by attorneys representing Mr. Williams and Commissioners Betty Beard, J.B. Hatney and Calvin Holland.

Commissioner Don Grantham's attorney fired back Tuesday that the opposition's interpretation is misguided. In fact, that Supreme Court decision supports his position, wrote David Hudson.

"The Declaratory Judgment Act provides a means by which a superior court 'simply declares the rights of the parties or expresses (its) opinion ... on a question of law, without ordering anything to be done," Mr. Hudson quoted the Supreme Court in his brief.

"In the present case, Augusta's commissioners are of differing views as to what should be done in the case of a vote of abstention. The rights of the parties are uncertain, and in such a case of uncertainty, the courts of Georgia are specifically empowered to 'settle and afford relief from uncertainty'" Mr. Hudson wrote.

Defenders of the current system of voting contend there is no confusion. The system was established when the city and county governments consolidated. If six commissioners cannot agree on an issue, or in the case of a tie, five commissioners and the mayor, then the issue cannot pass.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet has taken the case of Woody Merry v. Augusta city commissioners under advisement. He does not face any type of deadline in making a decision.