Dougherty teachers get their day in Supreme Court

Dougherty teachers get their day in Supreme Court

ATLANTA, GA (WALB) - A lawsuit stemming from Dougherty County is raising concerns about the constitutionality of a state child abuse registry in Georgia's highest court.

Wednesday, Supreme Court justices heard from attorneys representing the Georgia Department of Human Services as well as attorneys representing five Dougherty County teachers and administrators.

According to a Supreme Court briefing, five children were allegedly in a lunchroom when a female student was inappropriately touched by one of more of the other students.

The student told a teacher about what happened, who then reported the incident to police.

That's when school police, Albany police and an investigator with the Department of Family and Children Services stepped in.

School and city police took no charges against the teachers.

The DFACS investigator looked at the incident differently and placed five teachers and administrators on a state child abuse registry—arguing they inadequately supervised the children.

The teachers filed a civil suit in superior court against the investigator and two other state officials.

In September that court ruled the rules and regulations of the registry unconstitutional.

Justices heard from both attorneys for 20 minutes each, questioning both sides about several different issues.

Emotions were high inside the Supreme Court as Gilbert Murrah, representing the Dougherty County teachers and administrators argued his case.

"I have never, in all the time, the cases and all the laws I've read, never seen a case as atrocious, as horrendous, as terrible as this one," said Murrah.

"We didn't bring you a single instance of unconstitutionality, we brought you a plethora," said Murrah.

Murrah began his arguments talking about the vagueness of the notices teachers received telling them they were on the child abuse list.

It's an issue the justices questioned the state about at length.

"If you were faced with that notice do you think you would have any way to figure out what the heck is going on?" asked Justice David E. Nahmias.

Ross Bergethon, deputy solicitor general, answered: "Depends on the circumstances of that particular teacher or your honor."

But that was just one of the many questions the justices must consider.

The state's attorney argues the superior court should have dismissed the case because the teachers didn't have their administrative hearing before the administrative law judge.

"We've never had a chance to even address the factual claims appellees have raised about why they shouldn't be on the registry and the ALJ could have granted them relief that they seek," said Bergethon.

But Murrah says the issue goes beyond that. He argues the mere fact that they were put on a list before having a hearing is a violation of their constitutional rights.

"Clearly this legislation lacks due process. The common concept of due process and notice and opportunity for hearing before you are condemned. These people were condemned and then they were told they were condemned," said Murrah.

Another issue at hand is who the teachers are suing and if they're able to sue them as individuals.

But in the end, the justices have the authority to make a ruling based on any one issue brought forward in the case.

It's important to note, the justices didn't hold back from discussing the gravity of constitutional questions in the case.

"Whether or not we have the opportunity to get to the merits of the constitutional challenge, I would certainly hope there would be a communication with your client about the requisite seriousness which they appear to be lacking in making these determinations," said Supreme Court Justice Nels S.D. Peterson.

The justices now have up to six months to make a ruling. Depending on the decision they make it could set a precedent for future rulings involving the Georgia child abuse registry.

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