GA Supreme Court hears Atlanta Falcons Stadium appeal

Residents claim the city’s issuance of bonds was unconstitutional

Congregations have been relocated, historic churches long demolished, and construction on the new Falcons stadium is well underway, yet the means by which the city hopes to pay for the project is still being questioned. This morning, the Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments on whether or not the city’s issuance of $200 million worth of bonds to help fund the $1.2 billion retractable-roof facility is constitutional.

Rev. William Cottrell speaks to media outside the Georgia Supreme Court.
Rev. William Cottrell speaks to media outside the Georgia Supreme Court.

The appellants in this case are a group of concerned Vine City and English Avenue residents, led by former pastor Rev. William Cottrell and a group of fellow clergymen. Before the seven justices and a packed chamber, attorney John Woodham argued the citizens’ case that the Fulton County Superior Court erred when it ruled that the city’s use of a 2010 state legislation allowing extension of the current hotel-motel tax to pay for the new stadium bonds was constitutional. The extension, Woodham said, was the manipulation of a statewide “general law” into a “special law” that only applied to this specific scenario. According to their brief: “It is well-settled in this State that a ‘special law may not amend a preexisting general law.’ ” Or as Woodham explained to the high court: “The city didn’t have the power in March to extend the tax.”

During his 20-minute presentation, Woodham was interrupted and challenged several times by Justices David Nahmias and Harold Melton—two of the more typically outspoken judges. Melton questioned whether a so-called special law isn’t valid if there isn’t a general law to adequately provide for the situation.

Arguing on behalf of the city and the Atlanta Development Authority, Matthew Calvert opened by emphasizing the regional and statewide reach of the project that will purportedly draw in $155 million in yearly tourism revenue and create more than a thousand jobs. He dismissed any legal challenge to lower court’s ruling and spoke to Justice Melton’s point that even if this was a “special law,”—a point Calvert would not concede—that the general law did not provide for the funding of a “successor stadium” or use of the current hotel-motel tax beyond 2020.

After Calvert and co-counsel Thomas Curvin exceeded their 20-minute time limit and court broke, the parties met with reporters on the sidewalk in front of the columned building. Speaking up against traffic and the din of construction from the State House across the street, Calvert said he wasn’t worried about the possibility of losing this case and his clients’ having to find alternative funds for the stadium, the construction of which proceeds regardless. “We’re not prepared to address that,” he said. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it—if we come to it.” The high court has until late March to render its decision.

Woodham declined to speak to the cameras, yielding the spotlight to his clients, whose legal interpretation of the preceding events was limited. The preachers instead chose to do what they do best. “Twenty-five years ago, the city promised that if they built the first Georgia Dome, they would rebuild Vine City and English Avenue,” said Cottrell, to the “Amen”s and “mmm-hmm”s of his supporters behind him. “That promise was broken.”

Rev. Anthony Motley of Lindsay Street Baptist Church put it in Biblical context: “David brought down Goliath not because he had the most resources, but because he hit him in the right place. We think we hit them in the right place.”