By Maria Saporta
In a clear legal victory for Bernice King, the attorneys for the King Estate have been disqualified from the case involving the right of her two brothers being able to sell Martin Luther King Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize and his personal traveling Bible.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney issued a ruling late April 2 disqualifying the King Estate’s lead counsel, William B. Hill Jr., and his firm, Polsinelli PC, from representing the plaintiff in this case.
“I just think this was the best decision,” Bernice King said during a reception celebrating the opening of the Kinsey exhibit at the Atlanta History Center Thursday evening. “There was definitely a conflict of interest.”
The ruling is expected to delay the legal hearing on the case that had been scheduled for September because the King Estate will now need to hire new attorneys and get them up to speed on issues regarding the case.
Meanwhile King’s Nobel Peace Prize and traveling Bible are in a bank safe deposit box, and only Judge McBurney has the keys to access its contents. Bernice King objects to those two items being sold while Dexter King, CEO of the King Estate, and his brother, Martin Luther King III, have said they have the legal right and desire to sell those two items.
Bernice King’s attorney, Eric Barnum, had made a motion in mid-March arguing that Hill should be disqualified because he had served as a Special Master (similar to the role of a judge) in a previous 2008 case involving the King Estate and its property.
In his ruling, Judge McBurney fully understood the significance of his ruling.
“The right to counsel is an important interest which requires that any
curtailment of the client’s right to counsel of choice be approached with
great caution,” he wrote. “Disqualification has an immediate adverse effect on the
client by separating him from counsel of his choice, and inevitably causes
delay. A client whose attorney is disqualified may suffer the loss of time
and money in finding new counsel and may lose the benefit of its longtime
counsel’s specialized knowledge of its [case]. Because of the right involved
and the hardships brought about, disqualification of chosen counsel
should be seen as an extraordinary remedy and should be granted
McBurney, however, went on to say that this was one of those extraordinary times.
“The Court is thus mindful of the significance of the relief Defendant is seeking and recognizes that only certain, limited circumstances justify such relief,” he wrote. “This case, however, is one of those cases.”
He cited the Georgia Rule of Professional Conduct, which states: “a lawyer shall not represent anyone in connection with a matter in which the lawyer participated personally and substantially as a judge or other adjudicative officer, arbitrator or law clerk to such a person, unless all parties to the proceeding give informed consent.”
The lawsuit is just the latest legal dispute that has occurred between the siblings since the death of their mother, Coretta Scott King, in January 2006, and the death of their eldest sister, Yolanda King, in May 2007.
In 2008, Bernice and Martin filed suit against their brother Dexter, CEO of the King Estate, arguing that he was mismanaging the Estate. Dexter King responded in several counterclaims that Bernice had wrongfully converted property of the Estate.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural D. Glanville, who was presiding over that case, appointed Attorney Hill as a Special Master to help sort through the issues in the case. The judge authorized him to inventory and review documents related to the Estate of Coretta Scott King as well as 700 boxes containing documents that subject to dispute by the parties.
According to Judge McBurney’s ruling this week, “Judge Glanville entrusted Special Master Hill with resolving the very issue now before this Court, ie., the property ownership of Dr. King’s Peace Prize and traveling Bible.”
McBurney went on to say that “as late as July 2010, Attorney Hill remained entangled with the present litigants still in his role as Special Master. That month, he filed a motion seeking a contempt hearing against the parties, including Bernice King, at which they would offer evidence why they should not be held in contempt for having failed to pay the Special Master’s bills. In other words, at one point in the 2008 case, Attorney Hill was functionally an opposing party to both the Estate and Bernice King.”
One of the final points made by Judge McBurney was an acknowledgement that there has been an ongoing disagreement over the ownership and control over several of Martin Luther King Jr.’s personal items.
“Finally, lest there be any doubt that the parties were litigating ownership and control over Dr. King’s personal items in the 2008 case, in the final order that ‘resolved’ that case, the parties listed the Peace Prize by name as one of the items whose ownership remained unsettled.” McBurney wrote in his ruling.
It is not known when this case will now be heard.
Meanwhile, Attorney Hill continues to represent the King Estate, specifically Dexter and MLK III, in a lawsuit against Bernice King in her role as CEO of the nonprofit King Center.
That lawsuit, which was filed on Aug. 28 – the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, demanded the removal of Bernice King as CEO of the King Center, as well as the ouster of former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young as a trustee on the King Center board. If they didn’t resign, then the King Center (which was founded by their mother in honor of their father) would no longer be able to use the King name, likeness or works because they belonged to the King Estate.
That case is still in litigation.