More than a year after Gwinnett Commissioner Tommy Hunter’s initial Facebook posts calling a civil rights leader and sitting congressman a “racist pig,” the legal battle over his public reprimand continues.
On Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Melodie Snell Conner voluntarily recused herself from handling any further proceedings in the Hunter case, an ongoing civil lawsuit in which the commissioner is challenging the constitutionality of the ethics board that recommended his reprimand last summer. Conner’s recusal comes less than two weeks before a hearing that would have weighed Hunter’s ability to appeal previous rulings to Georgia’s Supreme Court — and amid accusations that her office had improper out-of-court communication with attorneys representing Gwinnett County in the case.
The hearing, in which the county would have argued for the dismissal of Hunter’s attempted appeal to the Supreme Court, was canceled. It will be up to the new judge in the case, Randy Rich, to decide if another one should be scheduled.
Conner had handled Hunter’s lawsuit since it was filed last May, about four months after Hunter called U.S. Rep. John Lewis a “racist pig” on Facebook.
According to documents, an associate of Ken Jarrard, the primary attorney representing Gwinnett, reached out to a clerk in Conner’s office earlier this month. He asked why the record of the Hunter case had already been sent to the Georgia Supreme Court while the county was still trying to fight the commissioner’s appeal of the initial ruling, which shot down Hunter’s claims.
Conner ultimately scheduled an April 3 hearing on the county’s motion to dismiss Hunter’s appeal and issued an order to stop the Supreme Court from docketing the case there until the hearing was held.
In the same letter in which Jarrard had asked Conner to “claw back” the court record, he admitted that his associate’s contact with the clerk should have come in the form of a letter that included Hunter’s attorney as a recipient or in court with that attorney, Dwight Thomas, present.
After Jarrard informed of the interactions, Thomas sent a letter asking Conner to remove herself from the case.
It was not immediately clear this week if Rich, the new Gwinnett judge on the case, would schedule a hearing regarding the county’s motion to dismiss the Hunter team’s appeal.
As of Friday morning, the Hunter case was not listed on the Georgia Supreme Court’s online docket.
Hunter’s legal team has argued that the ethics board that investigated his Facebook posts and ultimately recommended his reprimand was unconstitutional because some of its members are appointed by non-elected entities. The county has argued that the ethics board is legal because it is merely a recommending body and Hunter’s colleagues on the Board of Commissioners could have chosen to punish — or not punish — him in any way it chose.
Hunter has also threatened to file a separate federal lawsuit against his fellow commissioners over his reprimand, which was read publicly at a commission meeting, posted on the courthouse bulletin board and published in the Gwinnett Daily Post, the county’s legal organ. In a formal lawsuit-threatening notice filed in November, Hunter demanded $5 million in compensation.
As of Friday morning, no federal suit had been filed.
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