On the Ballot: Georgia House Bill 1023, sovereign immunity

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ATLANTA (WRBL) – As we inch closer to Election Day, Georgia voters have more to decide than just the next President of the United States. There are three measures on the ballot to vote on in November.

Georgians will vote yes or no on two proposed constitutional amendments and one statewide referendum.

House Resolution 1023, also called Amendment 2, is one of the ballot measures Georgians will vote on in the November election. The proposed amendment is focused on sovereign immunity, a right of a government to not be sued without its own consent.

House Resolution 1023/Act No. 596:

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to waive sovereign immunity and allow the people of Georgia to petition the superior court for relief from governmental acts done outside the scope of lawful authority or which violate the laws of this state, the Constitution of Georgia, or the Constitution of the United States?

Ballot description for HR 1023

If passed, Amendment 2 would let citizens file lawsuits to overturn or remove unconstitutional laws, even if the state or local government doesn’t agree to be sued.

Previously, Georgia residents could not sue state and local governments over potentially unconstitutional laws without the governments’ permission.

According to Larry Ramsey, the Deputy General Counsel for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, Amendment 2 is the result of efforts over several years to handle how the rules have changed with Georgia residents suing state, county, or city governments.

“Several years ago, it used to be the case that lawsuits could be brought against the government where the allegation was the government had acted beyond it’s authority,” Ramsey said. “In 2014, the Georgia Supreme Court kind of changed the rules and they said ‘Well, we were wrong in the past about those kinds of lawsuits,’ and that ultimately, sovereign immunity barred certain types of lawsuits against the state and local governments, even where the allegation was that the government was violating constitutional rights.”

Ramsey says in the wake of those cases, the Georgia General Assembly tried to address the issue with laws to waive sovereign immunity so some lawsuits could be filed again where the government had “acted beyond its authority,” but the legislation was vetoed twice, once by Governor Nathan Deal, once by Governor Brian Kemp as recently as last year.

The proposed amendment is now on the ballot for November, putting the issue in the hands of voters directly, so that “The Governor does not have a say in a constitutional amendment,” according to Ramsey.

“It kind of reopens the courthouse door to citizens that have been barred from sovereign immunity to seek relief from illegal government actions,” Ramsey said.

For cases that do proceed to court, if plaintiffs are successful at suing a state or local government or agency in Georgia, the case is limited to just the parties named in the case. This means that the injunctive relief would not apply to other agencies or governments, but it could serve as guidance in later cases.

In cases seeking monetary relief or damages, the General Assembly would have discretion over providing that monetary relief.

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