Tensions between Lin Wood and Mercer boil over

Attorney L. Lin Wood addresses supporters of President Donald Trump during a "Stop the Steal" rally in Alpharetta, Georgia, on December 2, 2020. (Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Attorney L. Lin Wood addresses supporters of President Donald Trump during a "Stop the Steal" rally in Alpharetta, Georgia, on December 2, 2020. (Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

On a January day in 2020, famed attorney L. Lin Wood returned to Mercer University’s law school in Macon to launch its “legal legends” lecture series in the college’s L. Lin Wood Courtroom.

Mercer President William D. Underwood has called him “a loyal alum who never forgot the role Mercer played in helping him” in his future success. Wood also was a major donor, whose pledged $1 million contribution put his name on the courtroom where he spoke.

Now, in a stunning turn, the two sides are embroiled in an escalating dispute that feels like the opening salvo in a messy divorce. Wood told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Mercer spread lies about him, damaging his reputation, and a simple apology at this point won’t be enough.

The breakup came as students and alumni have pressured the school to sever ties with Wood and remove his name from the school’s courtroom because of Wood’s full-throated advocacy that the November election was stolen from President Trump through widespread fraud. Wood has accused state officials of taking bribes to prevent Trump from winning Georgia, said Biden is an illegal president and suggested the country is being run by the military.

The pressure-campaign on Mercer has intensified in recent weeks following the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol building and Wood’s social media posts calling on patriots to take action and to “get the firing squads ready. Pence goes first,” referring to then-Vice President Mike Pence, who Wood has suggested committed treason. The Secret Service visited Wood after the tweet. (Wood said the statement was rhetorical hyperbole and said he has never advocated violence.)

Pressure inside the law school has become so tense that Dean Cathy Cox held a Zoom call on Friday to clear the air with students. She explained that severing ties may not be so easy because the two sides signed a contract. Wood pledged the money to be given in annual installments over a decade, and the school agreed to name the courtroom for him.

She suggested the stakes are high for a 188-year-old institution that has never removed someone’s name from a building. She said the school is giving it careful consideration and ultimately the decision would fall to President William Underwood and the board of trustees.

Cox, the last Democrat elected Georgia secretary of state, has known Wood for years and told students he even represented her once when someone was attacking her reputation. She went on to say she was not a trained mental health professional, but worried about Wood. She even mentioned his strained relationship with his adult children to the group on Zoom.

“This is all extremely troubling what is going on with him,” Cox said.

She didn’t realize Wood was listening to the Zoom call until he spoke up after several minutes of Cox expressing her concerns about him.

Wood, one of the most well-known defamation lawyers in the country, said he did not want Mercer embroiled in controversy but accused Cox of besmirching his reputation and wrongly suggesting that his law career had taken a downturn in the past year.

In the session, which he recorded and later posted online, Wood characterized two complaints against him with the State Bar Association as frivolous. He said he had reached undisclosed settlements with CNN and the Washington Post for their reporting on Nicholas Sandmann, a Kentucky teenager in a MAGA hat whose encounter with a Native American activist in Washington went viral in an out-of-context video.

“I challenge you because you are not telling the truth,” Wood told Cox on the call. “You have slandered me in this meeting. I’m ashamed that you would do that behind my back in front of people who are my colleagues. I think you and Mercer University needs to stop and think twice about what you are doing because I think you are jeopardizing the integrity of your school and the integrity of our profession.”

The issue seems far from settled. Mercer declined to be interviewed for this story, but issued the following statement. “We have heard from people expressing a range of opinions on Lin Wood’s donor recognition at the law school, but no action has been taken relative to that recognition. We have nothing further to say about the matter at this time.”

Wood, 68, grew up in Macon and both he and his older sister received undergraduate scholarships from the school. He told the AJC he is proud of his history with the school, but that what Cox said on the Zoom call was wrong. He’s particularly offended that she made comments about his family and his relationship with his children.

Someone started an online petition to defend Wood and call for the school not to remove his name from the court. His defenders have taken to social media to call for Cox’s ouster. What does Wood want?

“Maybe Cathy Cox will have another Zoom meeting and fall on her sword and admit what she did was wrong and talk about what a great career I have had, including through the year 2020 and into 2021,” Wood said. “So there are a lot of ways to resolve it, but I can’t resolve it until they tell me what they want to do.”

He said he hasn’t ruled out suing the school, where he received undergraduate and law degrees and where his daughter, Ashley, received her law degree.

“I didn’t start the fight,” he said. “I didn’t want that. I wanted to continue to make my donations and have the school prosper. They created the problem.”