William Hill
William Hill was appointed special master in a 2008 case involving Dr. King’s property. That disqualifies Hill from representing the estate now in a similar property suit, the judge ruled. (File photo)

A judge has disqualified an attorney and his firm from representing the estate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in its battle with King’s daughter over the slain civil rights icon’s Nobel Peace Prize and Bible, ruling that William Hill Jr.’s role as a special master in a previous wrangle over King’s possessions mandated his removal from the ongoing case.

Wednesday’s order by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney said that Hill’s representation of the estate was “sufficiently connected” to a 2008 suit filed by Bernice King and her brother, Martin Luther King III, against the estate and its CEO, Dr. King’s son Dexter King, to run afoul of legal ethics rules.

Georgia Rule of Professional Conduct 1.12(a) bars an attorney from representing a party in any “matter in which the lawyer participated personally and substantially as a judge or other adjudicative officer.”

Hill, a partner with Rafuse Hill & Hodges until December, when the firm was acquired by Missouri-based Polsinelli, said Friday that he and his client have not decided whether to challenge McBurney’s order.

Bernice King’s counsel, Eric Barnum, said McBurney’s order “speaks for itself.”

A motion the estate filed seeking to disqualify Barnum and his firm, Schiff Hardin, is pending. No hearings have been scheduled on that matter, Barnum said, “and I don’t imagine one will be until such time as the court determines it is appropriate and the plaintiff has had time to retain new counsel.”

In February, the King estate sued Bernice King, alleging that she had breached a 1995 agreement under which Dr. King’s heirs assigned their rights to their father’s possessions to the estate. The complaint contended that Bernice King had “secreted and sequestered” Dr. King’s 1964 Nobel Prize and his “traveling Bible,” the same Bible upon which President Barack Obama took his oath of office.

Bernice King has said the suit stems from a plan by her brothers Dexter and Martin to sell the items.

The prize and Bible are currently in a safety deposit box, where McBurney ordered them placed until the suit is resolved.

On Feb. 27, Bernice King filed a motion seeking Hill’s disqualification, pointing to his appointment as special master in the 2008 suit. In that case, Bernice and Martin King joined forces to sue Dexter King, alleging, among other things, that he was mismanaging the estate. As detailed in McBurney’s order, Dexter King and the estate filed counterclaims, including allegations that Bernice King had “wrongly converted property of the estate.”

The judge in that case, Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville, appointed Hill—himself a former Fulton Superior Court judge —as a special master to help manage the contentious litigation.

In court filings and during a March hearing, Hill said his duties primarily involved an inventory of about 700 boxes of documents the parties were fighting over. As McBurney’s order noted, Glanville subsequently expanded Hill’s duties to include determining the validity of the 1995 assignment of Dr. King’s property to the estate. But Hill argued he never got further than inventorying the documents before the suit settled in 2010.

In rejecting Hill’s argument, McBurney pointed to both the subject matter of the dispute assigned to Hill as special master and Hill’s involvement in attorney fee issues in the 2008 case.

Among the property the parties were sparring over then were “all the items in [Bernice King's] possession that were owned by Dr. King,” wrote McBurney, a “universe the estate then—and now—contends includes the Peace Prize and traveling Bible. In other words, Judge Glanville entrusted Special Master Hill with resolving the very issue now before this court, i.e., the proper ownership of Dr. King’s Peace Prize and traveling Bible.”

Additionally, McBurney wrote, Hill had taken other actions that exposed him “even more extensively to the financial and litigative histories of the parties,” including presiding over a hearing to determine an award of attorney fees to Dexter King, and Hill’s filing of contempt motions against the parties over their failure to pay his bills.

“In other words,” McBurney wrote, “at one point in the 2008 case, Attorney Hill was functionally an opposing party to both the Estate and Bernice King.”

Hill’s representation of the King estate in the current case runs afoul of both Rule 1.12 and a provision in the Model Code of Judicial Conduct that says a judicial officer may not “act as a lawyer in any proceeding in which he served as a judge or in any other proceeding related thereto,” McBurney wrote.

His order said both Hill and Polsinelli must be disqualified.

“The Court is understandably reluctant to reach this conclusion,” wrote McBurney, “but finds that it is the natural, ineluctable result of a careful, dispassionate analysis of the 2008 case, the special master’s role therein and the patent subject matter overlap with the instant case.”

The estate’s motion to disqualify Bernice King’s counsel is based on conversations Barnum had with Dexter King concerning a lawsuit filed against the estate by singer Harry Belafonte, a friend and confidante of Dr. King, over papers that were once in Belafonte’s collections that the estate laid claim to.

In other developments, the estate has asked the court to sanction Bernice King for violating McBurney’s order that the Peace Price and Bible be placed in a bank vault pending the case’s outcome. While she turned over the Bible, Nobel medal and its box, Hill said Friday she has kept a diploma and accompanying box that the estate contends also are components of the Nobel Prize.

The case is Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc. v. King, No. 2014CV241929.