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Attorney Tom Church arguing before the Supreme Court of Georgia

Tom Church argues in favor of the right to sue government officials before Supreme Court of Georgia

Attorney Tom Church arguing before the Supreme Court of Georgia. Click HERE to watch the argument.

As reported by Law360, our firm recently argued before the Supreme Court of Georgia after the State of Georgia and the District Attorney of Gwinnett County appealed our injunction that prohibits the DA from raiding businesses that sell Delta-8-THC and other hemp extracts. While the State and the DA brought two appeals, one relating to the hemp extracts themselves and one relating to legal procedures, the justices were clearly more interested in the procedure.

Specifically at issue at our argument was whether a person who is threatened or harmed by government overreach, such as by the DA in this case, can bring a claim against the State of Georgia and an individual state official at the same time. For decades, the people of Georgia could not sue the state government until they voted to amend the Georgia Constitution to allow claims against the State seeking “declarations” that clarify a law or the legality of an official’s actions. Critically, you cannot seek an emergency injunction against the state under this new amendment—you can only get an emergency injunction against an individual official.

The State appealed our injunction by arguing that the new constitutional amendment prohibits people from bringing claims against individual officials and the State at the same time. If the Court’s agree with the State, it would restrict the people of Georgia’s ability to seek judicial protection from unlawful government conduct since they would either have to bring separate lawsuits against the State and the official or give up their right to seek an emergency injunction.

We argued forcefully for the people to have a robust right to seek judicial intervention when government officials act unlawfully or outside the scope of their authority. The Supreme Court will issue a ruling in the coming months that will govern hundreds of cases in the future and control what remedies the people of Georgia have from government overreach. Our firm is proud to be in the fight on the side of the people

Excerpts From the Article at Law360

Law360 (January 19, 2023, 4:28 PM EST) — Georgia Supreme Court justices took issue Thursday with an attempt by vape shop companies to block the state and an Atlanta-area district attorney from cracking down on the sale of cannabinoid products, indicating the way the case was pled might require its dismissal…

The relevant law, effective January 2021, waives sovereign immunity for declaratory actions against the state, its departments and employees exclusively in the name of the state or a local government body. It stipulates that such actions naming as a defendant any individual, officer or entity other than expressly authorized shall be dismissed.

“How is the action against the DA in their individual capacity expressly authorized under this?” Justice Charles J. Bethel asked Church. “How does that not trigger this provision that says that shall be dismissed?”

Church said the language doesn’t apply to an action against an official in their individual capacity…

Church said the waiver was intended to expand the right to sue, not restrict that right. He said forcing the companies to file two different lawsuits would be restrictive.

The justices also pushed back on that point, saying the waiver added to existing state law without taking away the ability to bring actions under another provision against officers in their individual capacities.

“Why is it not just the price of admission to avail yourself of this narrow constitutional waiver to follow exactly what the people of Georgia said in this text that the General Assembly passed?” Justice Warren asked.

Church responded that a plaintiff doesn’t have to avail themselves of the provision when suing an individual capacity defendant. He said the relief sought against the district attorney in her individual capacity is discreet and different from the declaratory relief sought against the state, to which the provision applies.

“I think you’re just making an argument of why they shouldn’t have been brought together in the first place if they’re so different,” Justice Warren said.

Church said a plaintiff shouldn’t have to go “county by county” to get relief against state officials trying to crack down on the sale of Delta-8 and Delta-10 products in their areas…

The cases are The State et al. v. SASS Group LLC et al., case number S22A1243, and The State et al. v. SASS Group et al., case number S22A1244, in the Supreme Court of Georgia.”

Read more at LAW360

Excerpts From the Article at The Daily Report

The Daily Report also covered our arguments. Here are some excerpts:

“January 24, 2023 at 05:55 PM…State attorneys want to see a lawsuit filed by a pair of hemp-product retailers against Georgia and an individual district attorney go up in smoke.

Appealing several Fulton County Superior Court decisions surrounding the complaint to the Supreme Court of Georgia, Solicitor General Stephen J. Petrany argued the appellees’ complaint should have been tossed on sovereign immunity grounds after it named Gwinnett County District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson in its complaint seeking declaratory relief from the state.

“Since it’s all done in one action, it should be dismissed,” Petrany said.

Representing SASS Group LLC and Great Vape LLC, appellee counsel Thomas D. Church of the Church Law Firm in Roswell countered his clients didn’t need to file two separate actions under the Georgia Constitution since the “joint actions have common questions of law or fact.”

Two months after Austin-Gatson issued a January 2022 press release threatening prosecution for businesses possessing, selling or distributing products containing cannabinoids—including Delta-8-THC and Delta-10-THC—SASS Group and Great Vape sued the DA, in her individual capacity, and the state.

The plaintiffs sought an interlocutory injunction barring the district attorney from taking criminal enforcement action, or pursuing civil asset forfeiture against them for selling hemp-derived products containing cannabinoids.

The state motioned to dismiss the plaintiffs’ lawsuit on grounds they’d improperly applied the constitutional waiver of sovereign immunity in their pursuit of Austin-Gatson.

But Fulton County Superior Court Judge Chuck Eaton instead granted the plaintiffs’ temporary restraining order against the district attorney’s enforcement.

Ten months later, the solicitor general appeared before the Supreme Court of Georgia arguing the trial court’s failure to dismiss the appellees’ complaint, as motioned for by the state, had been in error….

Petrany argued that, because the appellees sued both the state and the district attorney in her individual capacity, the provision called for the action to be dismissed.

“Contrary to the plaintiffs argument, ‘action’ here means … a suit or a case not a claim or a cause of action,” Petrany argued. “So you can’t maintain a single claim against the State and other claim against someone else and comply with this provision. That’s still one action that has to be dismissed.”

Across the aisle, Church countered the appellees’ claims involved separate, consolidated actions with common questions of law or fact.

“The district attorney issued this press release and started conducting raids,” Church argued. “Facing an imminent, discrete threat from the district attorney, the plaintiffs in this case brought two consolidated actions in superior court. These were two distinct actions against two distinct defendants seeking distinct remedies.”…

The response prompted a rebuttal by Bethel.

“When you go to superior court, which is where these things must be filed, and you file a suit … it gets a ‘civil action number.’ It doesn’t get assigned a ‘civil actions number,’ it gets a ‘civil action number’ because it’s an action. That’s the way lawyers in Georgia, and really the Western world, think about a suit being filed. It’s a civil action,” Bethel said. “You filed an action, and on the defendant side you listed somebody not covered by paragraph 5 [of the constitutional waiver of sovereign immunity]. It seems to me that that says that should be dismissed.”

However, Church disagreed.

“That only works if your read the word ‘action’ like the state is, which is in isolation,” Church argued. “It’s not just actions, it’s a very specific type of action.”

Read the entire article at Law.com

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Several guns laid out on a table

Our Firm files Motion to Dismiss Charges in Federal Firearms Case After Supreme Court’s Second Amendment Ruling in 2022

Image from CNBC Article on “Ghost Guns”

Last week, our firm filed a motion to dismiss the charges against our client who is charged with federal firearm trafficking offenses. The Government is alleging that our client illegally possessed “ghost guns,” firearms and firearm parts that can be used to convert a semi-automatic firearm into an automatic. Specifically, our client is charged with possessing a “machine gun,” possessing an unregistered firearm, and dealing in firearms without a license.

While our client has a strong defense for trial, our firm took an aggressive approach to this case and filed a motion to dismiss all the charges based on the Supreme Court’s recent Second Amendment ruling in New York State Rifle v. Bruen. In that case, the Supreme Court set a new rule for courts to determine whether a firearm law or regulation is constitutional under the Second Amendment. 

This new rule is based on history—the government has to prove that a law restricting the possession or use of a firearm is consistent with the “historical tradition” of firearm regulation in the U.S. In other words, only laws similar to those at the founding can be considered constitutional. Since Bruen, courts have struck down several criminal federal firearm laws, including the law criminalizing possessing a firearm with an altered or obliterated serial number and the law prohibiting possessing a firearm while under indictment.

Our motion challenges the constitutionality of federal firearm statutes that prohibit the mere possession of an automatic weapon or other types of firearms based solely on their rate of fire. We are also arguing that it is unconstitutional to criminalize the possession of a firearm solely because it has not been registered with the government. We believe that these laws are not consistent with how our country has historically regulated firearms, at least as the Supreme Court discussed in Bruen. In fact, our country generally didn’t outlaw firearms based on the type of firearm until the 20th century. At the founding, you could even own a cannon.

We fight hard for our clients, and that includes making arguments that may not be popular with some people. In this case, our client is being threatened with up to a decade in prison based on his possession of firearms and firearms, conduct that is covered by the Second Amendment. We believe taking an aggressive approach in these kinds of cases is the best way to get a good outcome for our clients and their families.

If you or a loved one has been charged with a federal firearms offense, contact our experienced federal defense lawyers. We will fight hard for you.

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Attorney at Law Magazine names Tom Church “Trial Attorney to Watch in 2022”

Just prior to starting The Church Law Firm, Attorney Tom Church was selected by Atlanta Attorney at Law Magazine as one of the “Trial Attorneys to Watch in 2022.” For years, Attorney at Law Magazine has covered a variety of legal practices across different cities across the U.S. and publishes articles identifying some of the top lawyers in each practice area. 

The magazine interviewed Tom and published an article about Tom’s practice as a partner at Pate, Johnson & Church and his success in federal and state criminal defense cases across the country. 

See below for the full text of the article.

Attorney At Law Cover featuring Tom Church
Attorney At Law Full Article Featuring Tom Church

Tom Church Chose to Represent People, Not Big Corporations or Powerful Government Agencies

“Entering his sixth year as a trial lawyer, and his fourth as a partner at Pate, Johnson & Church LLC, Thomas D. Church recognizes that his first five years of practice have been unconventional. Especially the last few, which took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic and political turmoil in the U.S. 

While Church’s name was added to the firm in October 2019, a little more than two years after he graduated law school, he believes his career really took off in 2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic. “I started representing inmates across the country who were elderly or had medical conditions that put them at risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19,” Church explained. Church filed dozens of motions for “compassionate release” in over a dozen states and helped many inmates get back home. “It is the most important thing I have done in my life,” says Church.

One man hired Church months after he had just been sentenced to six years in prison. Church won a motion to reduce the man’s sentence to house arrest after proving he was allergic to the COVID-19 vaccine and at risk from Covid due to his age. Church helped several other inmates get their sentences shortened, including some serving life, after proving that they had received excessive sentences.

Church believes that he was fortunate to be hired out of law school by the more than 25-year-old firm now known as Pate, Johnson & Church. Most of Church’s cases are federal criminal cases or felony charges in Georgia. His federal cases have taken him from San Diego to New York City, and everywhere in between. His cases in Georgia span across the state as well. “I’ve had cases in the northwestern corner of the state near Chattanooga all the way to Savannah. I’ve learned more about Georgia in the past five years than in the previous 25 years living here.”

The 32-year-old attended middle and high school in Columbus, Georgia. But the Emory University and University of Georgia School of Law graduate has a much broader, international background than that would suggest. His parents are both archeologists who met in Peru, where his mother is from. His younger brother was born in a Peruvian hospital, and Church recalls growing up there for several years as a child. Church is proud of his Peruvian heritage—“Amo la patria.” 

Church’s upbringing also means that he is fluent in Spanish, which he describes as “a boon for our practice.” Church says he has close relationships with his Spanish-speaking clients, who often provide repeat business or refer their family members to Church’s firm.

Church’s profile on the firm website states that he became a trial lawyer to represent people, rather than big corporations and powerful government agencies, but his path was not set in stone. “In law school, I was going for the business litigation route. Besides maybe estate law or family law, the last thing I wanted to do was criminal law. But I was struggling to find a job after taking the bar, and people at UGA who were looking out for me put me in touch with Page Pate, one of the best trial lawyers in the country. I realized most people don’t get opportunities to get mentored by someone like that.”

It was only after he was hired and passed the bar exam that Church told Pate and Jess Johnson, another partner at the firm, that he had been arrested twice on misdemeanor charges when he was 18 years old. “I told them I had served a little time in county jail, and Page told me that gave me more credibility in his eyes. It was then I knew I was at the right place because you’re not going to be a good trial lawyer unless you know what’s at stake for the people you represent,” remembers Church.

Perhaps Church’s brush with the law as a teen strengthened his backbone. During his last year in law school, he was selected to participate in a week-long seminar led by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whom Church considers “ideologically opposite” from himself. He had to apply for the seminar, and only a few students were chosen. As Church recalls, “My application was about how I disagreed with Justice Thomas’ judicial philosophy but felt the best way to learn would be to challenge my own ideas. And I tried my best to challenge his as well. We didn’t end up agreeing on much except for Georgia football, but at the end of the seminar, as we each lined up to take pictures with him, Justice Thomas said to me as we were shaking hands, ‘This guy is going to be my lawyer, because he can make an argument for anything!’”

That is, of course, a compliment and a challenge for any budding attorney. But so far in his practice, Church says his biggest challenge has been dealing with the emotional side of his work, taking on the burden of representing people charged with serious crimes and being there for their families. “The client is rarely the bad person the prosecution makes them out to be, and the families are almost always innocent,” Church says.

“I had to build a lot callouses,” he explains. “I am grateful for my close relationships with my clients, but I couldn’t stop thinking about their cases even when I was off the clock. I felt the need to return emails from clients or their families right away because I knew how important it is to them. I had to learn how to establish balance and boundaries. Criminal practice can consume you if you let it. It is also adversarial, so you’re often fighting against a system where the prosecutors have way more power than you do.”

Fortunately, Church also describes himself as a “people person,” and he has great relationships with some prosecutors. “You can’t look at this work purely on a win-loss basis. Most of the time, there’s at least some evidence supporting the charges against your client. In some cases the evidence of guilt is overwhelming. If you can’t get the charges dismissed or the evidence thrown out, the name of the game becomes damage control. Sometimes that means keeping someone out of prison, even if you can’t avoid a felony conviction. Sometimes it means a shorter sentence or getting someone to better facility.”

Of course, getting an unqualified win is the best, Church acknowledged. “Those moments carry you for a long time. Nothing puts the wind in your sails like someone telling you you’ve given them their life back.” Many of Church’s former clients have left him Google reviews thanking him for doing just that.

Among the cases Church handles at both the state and federal level are drug trafficking cases, white collar crimes, immigration offenses, sex crimes, and appeals. He has gotten unqualified wins in several of them, including getting racketeering charges dismissed in Fulton County after filing a motion challenging the indictment, winning a motion in a federal bribery case after proving that the government breached a plea agreement, and securing injunctions against district attorneys and sheriffs prohibiting them from raiding stores that sell CBD and other hemp products.

In 2018, Church recalls a very different case where two PhD students in the United States were arrested for taking stem cells to Iran, which is under sanctions prohibiting trade with the U.S. “Our client was a biologist who moved here from Iran to start a life here with her family,” he explains. “She was charged with a federal crime for bringing research materials to her mentor in Iran, who is a world-renowned doctor. It was political, and we were ultimately able to get those charges dismissed.”

In another memorable and more local case, Church represented a former high school classmate who was convicted of a felony several years ago and received a long probation sentence. When Church heard about it, he reached out to the classmate and took the case pro bono to get his probation terminated. Church told the judge, who graduated from the same high school decades earlier, “I know this man, we both graduated from Columbus High School, where he was a standout student. I’ve got my yearbook where he was voted a Class Favorite. He deserves a second chance, and this community is better off with as a full participant in it.” The judge granted Church’s motion.

Besides pro bono work, Church says his firm puts its money where its mouth is, noting that Page Pate is a founding member of the Georgia Innocence Project, an independent nonprofit organization in Georgia dedicated to helping individuals who have been convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. The firm contributes to several other local causes and organizations.

Even after a case has ended, Church says that the firm’s attorneys don’t just walk away. “Page has borrowed the old Georgia slogan, ‘finish the drill.’ We stick around for clients and their families if they need anything after the case is over. That’s one thing that sets us apart – how much of ourselves we put into our clients. It’s the philosophy that drives this firm.”

That Church has found early success as a trial lawyer shouldn’t surprise anyone. While in law school, Church was a member of the school’s Moot Court and Mock Trial teams. He won awards for achieving the highest marks in his Torts and Constitutional Law classes. He also served as a research assistant to Professors Dan Coenen and Michael Wells, experts in constitutional law and civil rights law.

Church points out that his partners, Page and Jess, also graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law. Recently Pate, Johnson & Church mined UGA’s law school again, hiring Kate Forrest, who attended UGA with Church, and Whitney Baker.

The firm obviously struck gold in hiring Church. In just his third year of practice, he was selected as one of the Top 40 Under 40 Criminal Defense Trial Lawyers in Georgia by the National Trial Lawyers. Membership on that list is by invitation only and usually for lawyers who have practiced for at least five years. Church has also been selected by Best Lawyers as “One to Watch” in 2021 and 2022. Most recently, Church was recognized by Super Lawyers as a “Rising Star” for 2022 and 2023.

Church, however, doesn’t brag about his own accomplishments. “I have been very fortunate to work with Page and Jess,” he emphasizes. “I did not build this law firm. It was already an elite firm when I got here, but I am proud of my contributions so far. I have been able to handle cases all over the country involving all kinds of interesting and exotic issues, and I’ve gotten to help a lot of people along the way. I really am a lucky man and am excited to see what lies ahead.”

If you or a loved one has been charged with a federal or state crime and need an experienced trial attorney who you can trust to fight for you, contact our firm. We will be honest with you and work hard for you.

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Awards


Best Lawyers - Pate Johnson & Church
The National Trial Lawyers Top 100
Page Pate
Rated by Super Lawyers


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Jess Johnson
Rated by Super Lawyers


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Thomas Church
Rated by Super Lawyers


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