On Wednesday, July 5, Chancellor Jeff Atherton upheld a contract between Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor and the previous County Commission, extending his term until 2025.
Attorney Taylor’s lawsuit stemmed from Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp’s attempt to terminate Taylor after assuming office in 2022, asserting that the county attorney’s appointment falls under the mayor’s authority. However, Taylor countered by claiming that he possessed a valid contract through 2025, granted by the prior commission.
Judge Neil Thomas, representing attorney Taylor, expressed satisfaction with the court’s ruling, stating, “We believe that the Court was correct in upholding the sanctity of contracts when it found the County Attorney’s contract valid. We hope that the parties will resolve themselves to work cohesively towards the best interests of this county.”
The long-running dispute revolved around a four-year contract approved by the commissioners and then-Mayor Jim Coppinger in June 2021, effectively securing attorney Taylor’s position until June 30, 2025. According to the contract’s terms, termination necessitates either “a majority of the County Commission, with concurrence from the county mayor” or a “two-thirds majority without concurrence from the county mayor.”
Mayor Wamp, however, contended in his court documents that the county attorney should be considered an at-will employee, subject to termination for any reason. He further argued that the County Commission lacked the authority to hire or fire any employee, including Taylor.
During the court proceedings, attorney Taylor asserted the validity of his contract until 2025, and maintained that Wamp lacked the authority to remove him. Notably, when Wamp sought the commission’s support to terminate Taylor last year, the plan was unanimously rejected.
Mayor Wamp’s legal team argued against the validity of Taylor’s contract, citing the employee handbook, which refers to the position as an at-will employment. However, Wamp himself was absent from the court on Wednesday.
In response to the ruling, Mayor Wamp released a statement: “For decades, the county attorney has run a private legal firm out of his government office while being paid handsomely as a full-time county employee. After receiving legal opinions on our right to appoint and fire the county attorney from Dwight Tarwater, who has been confirmed as a justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, and the state’s County Technical Assistance Service, we terminated Mr. Taylor. We’re disappointed by the court’s ruling and believe this high-profile case should have been handled outside Hamilton County by a judge who does not personally know the parties. We have not let this case get in the way of the important work of county government and will continue to work tirelessly to improve the quality of life for the people of Hamilton County.”
Taylor, 74, has a long history of public service. When he returned to Chattanooga in 1973, he became the city’s first licensed African American attorney. In 1978, Taylor, along with the Rev. Paul McDaniel, became the first black Hamilton County commissioners. Additionally, Taylor served as the first black Hamilton County attorney in July 1993, following his 15 years as a county commissioner. Alongside his legal career, attorney Taylor has served as the senior pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Lafayette, Georgia, for over 20 years.