Judges cleared to rule in Jones rock quarry lawsuit

Reversing an earlier ruling, the Georgia Supreme Court says one of the five judges from the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit may preside in a lawsuit concerning a proposed rock quarry north of Gray.

The mining company that brought the lawsuit had asked that the circuit’s judges be recused from the case because they each receive a $2,700 supplement from the county.

But a unanimous decision by the Georgia Supreme Court released Monday said the supplements are mandated by the state and do not create a direct financial interest for the judges in the outcome of the lawsuit.

The Ocmulgee District judges are James Levi Cline Jr., Hulane Evans George, John Lee Parrott, William A. Prior Jr. and Hugh V. Wingfield III.

The next term for Jones County Superior Court is in August, with Cline scheduled to preside. But whether the quarry lawsuit will be included in the August term hasn’t been determined.

In 2006, the Jones County Planning and Zoning Commission and the Jones County Commission both denied a request from a Florida-based company to establish a new rock quarry off Ga. 11 about four miles north of Gray on a 1,118-acre tract owned by the James Barron family.

The company, A Mining Group LLC, then sued the county and commissioners, claiming the company had met all criteria that were in effect at the time. The company said it should be allowed to open and operate an aggregate mine on the property.

In pre-trial maneuvering, the company’s lawyers argued that it would be a conflict of interest for the local judges to rule in the case because they receive payment from the county.

Houston County Senior Superior Court Judge L.A. McConnell Jr., brought in to hear that argument, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. But the Supreme Court decision reverses his ruling.

William Noland, one of the attorneys for Jones County, said Monday that the recusal ruling was only an isolated issue in the case, but he said he was pleased with the state Supreme Court’s ruling.

“We don’t think it will affect the outcome of the case whether it is one of the circuit judges or one from outside who hears it,” Noland said. “But we thought it set a bad precedent for Jones County and, really, all the state if circuit judges can’t hear a case because they receive a small portion of their salary from individual counties.”

Efforts to reach attorneys for A Mining Group for comment Monday were unsuccessful.

The land in question is zoned agricultural. At the time A Mining Group filed its request for a quarry, mining operations were permitted as a conditional use in agricultural areas in Jones County. But the county has since changed its zoning regulations to preclude mining in areas that are zoned agricultural.

To contact writer Chuck Thompson, call 923-6199, extension 235.