Ducktown Smoke: The Fight over One of the South's Greatest Environmental Disasters

By Duncan Maysilles | Go to book overview

7
ATTORNEY GENERAL HART,
THE NATIONAL FARMERS
UNION, AND THE SEARCH
FOR A REMEDY, 1907–1910

Some legal victories bear the sweet sense of finality. The criminal defense attorney who wins an acquittal for a murder suspect can celebrate with the added pleasure that comes from closing a file. Other lawyers, especially those who are paid on an hourly basis, are happier when a file remains open for additional lucrative work. The chancery case at the center of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House lasted for the duration of his nine-hundred-page novel as lawyers on both sides milked the decedent’s estate for their fees. The case ended only when the drain of fees exhausted the assets of the estate, rendering the litigation moot. Attorney General John C. Hart won a great legal victory for the state in Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Co. but enjoyed neither the sense of finality nor the financial rewards of an ongoing billable case.1

There was a time when Georgia’s attorneys general received fees for court appearances. That ended when the state constitution of 1877 placed the office on a salaried basis. Hart earned $2,000 per annum from the state, a handsome salary compared to the earnings of laborers at the time, but a pittance compared to the large fees received by the corporate lawyers he regularly bested. His income bore no relationship to his caseload. Georgia’s constitution mandated that his understaffed office handle every appeal of capital murder cases and every civil claim to which the state was a party. As his caseload increased, his income remained flat.2

The situation would have been a little more tolerable if his victory in Tennessee Copper allowed him to close the voluminous file. It did not. The Supreme Court’s decision of May 13, 1907, granted the state the right to an injunction to abate sulfurous smelter smoke released at the Tennessee Copper Company (TCC) facilities in Copperhill and at the Ducktown Sulphur, Copper & Iron (DSC I) works in Isabella. At the same time, the Court reset the case for the following October to determine the form of the injunction, doing so in language that questioned the wisdom of issuing an injunction at all. In his 1907 opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “Whether Georgia by insisting upon this claim is doing more harm than good to her own citizens is for her to determine.” He then warned, “The possible disaster

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