US appeals court upholds jury verdict in discrimination case

Published 3:36 am Sunday, May 25, 2008

The city of Columbus did not discriminate against Joe Johnson when it passed over the black officer to name a white police chief, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The decision Friday by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld a verdict reached in 2007 by a federal jury in Oxford.

Johnson, who is black and was interim police chief at the time, had alleged the decision to hire J.D. Sanders in 2003 was racially motivated.

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According to the court record, former Mayor Jeffrey Rupp broke a tie vote to hire Sanders after the city council voted 3-3, along racial lines in 2003.

Rupp testified in U.S. District Court that his decision to hire Sanders was based on an Operation Support Services study, which noted the Columbus Police Department was in disarray and no one inside the department could fix the problems.

Johnson joined the Columbus Police Department in 1974 as a patrolman and subsequently advanced through the ranks to the position of assistant chief. He served as interim chief from August 2003 to November 2003 and again served as the interim chief from October 2006 after the departure of Sanders until July 2007 when a new chief was named.

In his appeal to the 5th Circuit, Johnson challenged the trial judges decision to exclude testimony about Sanders’ performance as police chief.

The 5th Circuit said it agreed with the trial judge that Sanders’ performance after the council’s decision had already been made was not relevant to Johnson’s lawsuit.

The 5th Circuit also rejected Johnson’s challenges to instructions given to the jury before it began deliberations.

Friday’s ruling was issued by a panel of three 5th Circuit judges — Jacques L. Wiener Jr., Emilio M. Graza and Fortunato P. Benavides.