An Epic Battle Between Two Legal Heavyweights

Illustration by Catherine Blanch

An epic battle took place between two legal heavyweights. Attorney Charles Bowen and City Attorney Brooks Stillwell have gone toe to toe in a legal fight that has both corners touting VICTORY.  

 In a court battle involving Judge Tammy Stokes and her position as Chief Judge of Recorder’s Court, Charles Bowen was not going to let his long-time friend face false accusations.

Stokes has the distinction of being both the first female and first African American to hold the title of Chief Judge in Chatham County. She is viewed by many as unfailingly professional, strong-minded, and one of the best judges in the state.

In early 2016, the City of Savannah received two complaints against the Clerk of Court referencing various allegations of inappropriate conduct.

Instead of following the direction of Georgia Act 544 (a law which grants the Chief Judge oversight over all court matters), the City nevertheless decided to conduct the investigation on its own without Judge Stokes’ involvement or even awareness.

When the Chief Judge was notified of the investigation, she demanded that it be turned over to her, including all existing documents on the case. The city sternly refused and continued to do so for six months before finally admitting that it was, in fact, the Chief Judge’s ultimate duty to oversee the investigation and issue the final report to the public.

In one corner stood City Attorney Brooks Stillwell, throwing a hard left hook and going to court to win the right to publicly release the City’s preliminary report despite the fact it was still an open investigation. In what appeared to be a knockout blow, the six judges of the Superior Court of Chatham County decided not to wait until the investigation was complete and, relying solely upon the City’s preliminary findings, issued a very rare legal ruling called a Writ of Prohibition. The writ stripped Stokes of her administrative duties as Chief Judge, and the fight appeared to be over.

Refusing to concede defeat under what they deemed unlawful and unfair circumstances, in the opposite corner Bowen and his client suddenly rallied with a haymaker that knocked the City to the mat. Bowen took the entire matter to Georgia’s Supreme Court, which unanimously held that the Superior Court judges appeared to overstep their authority and were not allowed to enforce the writ. The City tried to fight back and asked the Supreme Court to reconsider, but they were again unanimously denied.

So who ultimately came out wearing the championship belt? Most observers would agree that both sides scored significant points by the time all was said and done. In fact, the issue was ultimately resolved with a compromise. The two sides came together to jointly craft an amendment to the existing law that changed both the way the Chief Judge was selected and the hiring of the Clerk of Court. However, the law would not apply to Judge Stokes and she will remain as Chief Judge for as long as she remains in office.

Finally, it should be noted than when the final and official investigative findings and report were released to the public, it was found that the initial allegations were untrue. The moral of the story? Do not put politics above the truth.

The story continues today with Chief Judge Stokes pursuing justice for herself. She’s pursuing a lawsuit against the author of the preliminary report, all part of her vow to clear her name, seek the truth, and ensure that such a long, unnecessary battle never happens again.

To read more about Attorney Charles Bowen and Attorney Brooks Stillwell, subscribe now or pick up the June/July issue of South magazine.