Sons of Confederate Veterans v. Henry Cnty. Bd. of Comm'rs, S22G0039

CourtSupreme Court of Georgia
Docket NumberS22G0039,S22G0045
Decision Date25 October 2022



Nos. S22G0039, S22G0045

Supreme Court of Georgia

October 25, 2022


This case is about a highly controversial subject: whether local communities must continue displaying (and maintaining at public expense) monuments that celebrate the Confederacy and its long-dead supporters, despite those communities finding such celebration repugnant. But nothing about those monuments is at issue in this appeal.

Instead, this appeal presents only a discrete and important threshold question: whether the Georgia Constitution requires a plaintiff to establish some cognizable injury to bring a lawsuit in Georgia courts, i.e., to have standing to sue, separate and apart from


the statutory authorization to bring suit. This question has broad implications far beyond the underlying controversy.

After a full review of the relevant history and context, our answer is this: to invoke a Georgia court's "judicial power," a plaintiff must have a cognizable injury that can be redressed by a judicial decision. Courts are not vehicles for engaging in merely academic debates or deciding purely theoretical questions. We "say what the law is" only as needed to resolve an actual controversy. To that end, only plaintiffs with a cognizable injury can bring a suit in Georgia courts. Unlike federal law, however, that injury need not always be individualized; sometimes it can be a generalized grievance shared by community members, especially other residents, taxpayers, voters, or citizens.

The Georgia Constitution might impose a higher requirement when a plaintiff challenges the constitutionality of a statute; we have long held that in such cases, the plaintiff must show an actual, individualized injury. But we need not decide today whether this additional requirement arises from the Georgia Constitution, such


that the General Assembly cannot abrogate it by statute, because the plaintiffs in this case do not challenge a statute as unconstitutional.

For the lesser requirement - that the plaintiff has suffered some kind of injury, albeit one that may be shared by all other members of the community - Georgia has long recognized that members of a community, whether as citizens, residents, taxpayers, or voters, may be injured when their local government fails to follow the law. Government at all levels has a legal duty to follow the law; a local government owes that legal duty to its citizens, residents, taxpayers, or voters (i.e., community stakeholders), and the violation of that legal duty constitutes an injury that our case law has recognized as conferring standing to those community stakeholders, even if the plaintiff suffered no individualized injury.

Applying that framework to this case, T. Davis Humphries, as a private citizen, has standing to assert a claim for injunctive relief against her local county government for its planned removal of a Confederate monument in alleged violation of OCGA § 50-3-1. But


the other plaintiffs - the various Sons of Confederate Veterans entities - have not shown that they are members of the communities the governments of which they seek to sue, and they have alleged no other cognizable injury sufficient to establish their standing. The Court of Appeals was therefore wrong to affirm the dismissal of Humphries's complaint for a lack of standing as to her claim for injunctive relief, but it was right to affirm the dismissal of the complaints filed by the various Sons of Confederate Veterans groups. We do not reach the question of whether Humphries has standing for her claim for damages under OCGA § 50-3-1, because the cause of action that statute purports to create has not yet arisen; by the statute's terms, the cause of action arises only upon the occurrence of conduct prohibited by the statute, and that conduct has not yet occurred. Accordingly, we affirm the dismissal of Humphries's statutory claim for damages and all claims by the Sons of Confederate Veterans groups, and reverse the dismissal of Humphries's claim for injunctive relief.

1. Background


(a) The statute at issue.

OCGA § 50-3-1 (b) makes it unlawful for any agency, including all state and local government entities,[1] or any officer of an agency (whether elected or appointed), to remove certain historic monuments, including monuments that honor the military service of soldiers of the Confederate States of America. See OCGA § 50-3-1 (b) (2). Additionally, "[n]o publicly owned monument erected, constructed, created, or maintained on the public property of this [S]tate or its agencies" or "on real property owned by an agency or the State of Georgia" can be relocated, removed, concealed, obscured, or altered in any fashion, except for the preservation, protection, and interpretation of such monuments. Id. § 50-3-1 (b) (3). A person or entity that damages or removes a monument without replacing it is liable for treble damages for the cost of repairing or replacing the


monument, attorney's fees, and even exemplary damages. Id. § 503-1 (b) (4). The statute expressly authorizes suits by private parties or groups, not only public entities owning a monument:

A public entity owning a monument or any person, group, or legal entity shall have a right to bring a cause of action for any conduct prohibited by this Code section for damages as permitted by this Code section. Such action shall be brought in the superior court of the county in which the monument was located.

OCGA § 50-3-1 (b) (5).

(b) Procedural history.

As alleged in the relevant complaint, the Henry County Board of Commissioners in July 2020 voted to remove a Confederate monument from the courthouse square in McDonough. As a result of this vote, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Colonel Charles T. Zachry Camp #108, and Georgia Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, filed suit against the Board seeking injunctive relief and damages, asserting that the Henry County Board's vote signaled an intention to violate OCGA § 50-3-1 (b).

Less than a week later, Humphries filed a similar complaint


for damages and injunctive relief against the Newton County Board of Commissioners, in their official capacity, alleging that the county's intention to hold an expedited vote to remove a Confederate monument from downtown Covington and place it in storage would violate OCGA § 50-3-1 (b). The next day, the Newton County Board voted to remove the monument, prompting Sons of Confederate Veterans, General George "Tig" Anderson Camp #2038, and Georgia Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, to file a complaint similar to Humphries's. Although each group phrased their allegations a bit differently from one another, the plaintiffs in Newton County all generally alleged that the County's votes directing action to remove the monuments did or would violate OCGA § 50-3-1 (b) (2) - (4).

Humphries brought her suit as a private citizen of Newton County. The Sons of Confederate Veterans organizations brought suit as "organizations of people who honor the memories and legacies of their forefathers who fought for freedom during the War Between the States[,]" but they made no other allegations about their members, including whether those members were citizens or


residents of their respective counties. All of the plaintiffs in all three suits alleged that the unlawful removal of the monument would cause them injury to their "rights and dignity." The plaintiffs alleged that they had standing under OCGA § 50-3-1 (b) (5).

A Newton County trial court consolidated, then dismissed, the two complaints filed against the Newton County Board of Commissioners. The Newton County trial court concluded that the plaintiffs in the Newton County suits lacked standing because they suffered no damages, as the monument in Covington had not been removed; that a 2019 amendment to OCGA § 50-3-1 (b) removed a party's ability to seek an injunction under the statute;[2] and that the claims were nevertheless barred by sovereign immunity. The trial court also issued a stay pending appeal, preventing Newton County from taking any action to remove the monument.


In Henry County, the trial court denied an emergency temporary restraining order, concluding that the plaintiffs' claims for injunctive relief were barred by sovereign immunity. Henry County then removed the monument, and the Henry County Board of Commissioners filed a motion to dismiss the complaint against it. They argued that the plaintiffs lacked standing to seek damages because they did not allege a concrete or particularized injury, that sovereign immunity barred a claim for damages, and that the claim for injunctive relief was moot because the county had already removed the monument. The trial court agreed with Henry County's position on all three grounds and dismissed the complaint.

All of the plaintiffs (collectively, the "Plaintiffs") appealed to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the Plaintiffs' complaints. See Sons of Confederate Veterans v. Newton County Bd. of Commissioners, 360 Ga.App. 798 (861 S.E.2d 653) (2021). Relying principally on federal case law decided under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, and recent Georgia case law supporting reliance on such federal precedent, the Court of Appeals held that


the plaintiffs lacked standing. The court reasoned that, although OCGA § 50-3-1 (b) (5) provided a cause of action, the "constitutional doctrine of standing still requires that a cause of action involve a concrete and particularized injury." Id. at 804-805 (2) (emphasis in original). The Court of Appeals went on to hold that "even when the legislature identifies and elevates intangible harms, a plaintiff does not automatically satisfy the injury-in-fact...

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