Fireworks as Sweet Briar injunction hearing moves forward

Teresa Tomlinson at a hearing on an injunction to block the closure of Sweet Briar College on April 15, 2015. Photo: Hawes Spencer Teresa Tomlinson at a hearing on an injunction to block the closure of Sweet Briar College on April 15, 2015. Photo: Hawes Spencer

If the women who want to save their 114-year-old Sweet Briar College are David and the state’s top lawyer is Goliath, David seems to be winning this battle.

On Tuesday, a Bedford County judge cleared the way for Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer’s motion seeking an injunction to block the closure of the school. Her argument: Sweet Briar’s governors ran afoul of Virginia’s charitable solicitations law when they sought donations without disclosing their plans to shutter the college at the end of the current academic year.

Wednesday morning’s hearing began with fireworks, as the lead counsel for the school’s board, which announced in early March that Sweet Briar would close, called the presence of private counsel at the plaintiff’s table an “ambush.” He then called Ellen Bowyer, the Amherst County Attorney, a “puppet,” a label that drew jeers and eventually an apology.

The judge called a 10-minute recess and then ruled that Bowyer was free to choose a private lawyer to assist, in this case William Hurd of the Richmond-based Troutman Sanders.

Left unclear is why the Attorney General has inserted his office into the mix. He filed an amicus brief trying to halt the process, something that the judge noted he’d never seen in his 37-year professional career. Judge James Updike seemed undeterred by the firepower both Tuesdayand Wednesday when he shot down entreaties by the AG’s office to stop the litigation.

On Twitter, Sweet Briar political science professor Steve Bragaw quipped the defense should have watched My Cousin Vinny to learn that it’s unwise to insult opposing counsel in a small town hearing. And he calls this proceeding “kind of like the unholy mashup of Braveheart and Designing Women  by way of the courthouse scenes in Dukes of Hazard.”

One of the more powerful women in the courtroom was the mayor of Georgia’s second-largest city. Teresa Pike Tomlinson took the stand Wednesday to tell how a college fund-raising official flew to Columbus in mid-February to get her to sign a letter affirming her commitment to donate $1 million in her will. Left unsaid, Tomlinson said, was any mention that the college might close, even though talks had reportedly already begun with schools to accept Sweet Briar students.

The interim president of the college, James Jones, who invited Tomlinson to be next month’s graduation speaker, reddened as Tomlinson spoke. But the mayor brought tears to the eyes of others in the courtroom as she talked of her love for the college, and how she didn’t learn what was happening to it until March 3 when she emerged from a city meeting. She testified she was told that there was a reporter on the line from Lynchburg seeking a quote about the closing of Sweet Briar.

Court resumed around 1pm Wednesday.