The Cobb County Superior Court judge assigned to preside over a validation hearing for bonds to help pay for the new Atlanta Braves stadium has personal connections to Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee and the chamber of commerce.
Judge C. LaTain Kell, Sr., assigned to the July 7 bond validation hearing, serves as a “special appointee” to the Cobb Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors. The chamber has 28 special appointees, which are voting members of the board, including Braves executive vice president Mike Plant.
In addition, Kell’s mother, Carole Kell, worked as chairperson for Lee’s 2012 re-election campaign. Lee, who has been credited as one of the architects of the Braves’ stadium deal, did not return a phone message Thursday seeking comment.
Cases are assigned to Superior Court judges randomly by computer, according to a spokesman with the court clerk’s office. Cobb commissioners have authorized up to $397 million in bonds for the stadium project.
Kell is out of town this week. But the Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked the judge through an assistant in his office if he planned to recuse himself from the hearing because of those personal connections. The judge had not responded as of late Thursday.
But two legal scholars say it would be a conflict of interest for Kell to preside over the case.
Monroe H. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University and former dean of that school’s law department, said a conflict of interest means that a person might reasonably question the judge’s impartiality — not that the judge would actually show favoritism to one side or another.
“It doesn’t mean that a reasonable person would think that the judge is less than impartial,” Freedman said. “It means a reasonable person might raise the question. That constitutes the conflict of interest. And there is a conflict of interest in this case.”
Jessica Gabel, an associate professor of law at Georgia State University, said this case is particularly sensitive since there have been critics of the deal who allege the county has lacked transparency and limited public input. Gabel said a judge with personal connections to Lee and the chamber “doesn’t pass the smell test,” and could be an issue raised on appeal.
“Those lingering issues can come back and rear their ugly heads later, if they are not rectified at the beginning of the case,” Gabel said. “With a case this high profile, you really have to take into consideration the public perception of what’s going on. This would not be a good situation.”
Validation hearings are meant to assure investors that government bonds are legally issued and that the debt is binding. They are typically routine steps, although it is possible to contest the bond issuance with a legal filing, called an intervention.
Rich Pellegrino, a member of Citizens For Governmental Transparency, said his group will intervene. The organization has called for a referendum before any public money is spent on the stadium, and the group has accused the county of lacking transparency and ignoring critics since the deal was announced in November.
Pellegrino said his organization will meet over the next few days to work out their strategy.
“There will definitely be an intervention,” Pellegrino said.
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