Two years ago, the Columbia County Board of Education wisely decided to stay out of a statewide lawsuit over school funding.
Two weeks ago, trustees rushed into a statewide case involving sex offenders, becoming puppets in an ongoing legal battle.
They were right two years ago. They're wrong this time. And they ought to be embarrassed.
At issue is House Bill 1059, the Georgia Legislature's sweeping crackdown on sex offenders. The election-year law's intent was to add more punishment to registered sex offenders after their sentences were already served - preferably, some get-tough lawmakers said, to make them leave the state altogether.
That might be popular at the polls, but naturally, such an attack on civil liberties - even directed at the least desirable class of citizens - was sure to attract a legal challenge. Attorneys for advocacy groups took the law to court on behalf of registered sex offenders who would have been forced to move because of the law's tough restrictions.
U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper ultimately decided to allow enforcement of the law while the legal challenges go forward, with one caveat: The portion of the law preventing registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of school bus stops can be enforced only when those bus stops are "officially designated" by local school boards.
The catch: At that time, there were no "officially designated" bus stops in the state. Thus, admits Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Danny Craig, Cooper prevented enforcement of the harshest part of the law while the court challenge continued.
The case could have made its way through federal court just fine, but no: Four hours after Cooper's July 25 ruling, Craig, along with Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle, led board members to believe they needed to "officially designate" bus stops so the law could be enforced. Board members dutifully voted to do so, thereby circumventing Cooper's ruling.
Whittle's deputies immediately began warning registered offenders they'd have to leave their homes if one of the county's more than 5,000 "officially designated" bus stops was too near - including, for example, a young Martinez man who lives with his parents and is listed on the registry because he had consensual sex at age 16 with his 14-year-old girlfriend. Ironically, under the tougher new law, the young man's offense would no longer even land him on the registry - but he potentially faces harsher punishment nonetheless.
The case went back to court, with Judge Cooper issuing an injunction to halt enforcement of the law that couldn't have been enforced anyway if the school board had stuck to its business of setting education policy.
Every other school board in the state has declined to "officially designate" their bus stops; while the issue is in litigation, they're smart to stay out of it. Columbia County trustees should have, too.
"I didn't know we were being set up as guinea pigs to get the (judicial) process to the next level," lamented Board Chairman Wayne Bridges in a called board meeting Thursday. "We did not have all of this information when we passed this."
Trustees on Thursday debated rescinding their bus-stop resolution; they'll discuss it again Tuesday. That's pointless: for one thing, the court already is preventing enforcement of the bus-stop provision while the law is being challenged; and, backpedaling now would only make the board members look even less in control.
At the very least, the lingering aftertaste of the trustees' ill-conceived resolution should remind them to stick to their real jobs: setting school policy, not portraying sock puppets.
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