Hundreds of lawyers join online to challenge Georgia’s new voting law

Deborah Wood, sitting on a camping chair, waits in lines to cast a ballot at the Shorty Howell Park Activity Building in Duluth, Georgia, on the last day of early voting on Oct. 30, 2020. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Deborah Wood, sitting on a camping chair, waits in lines to cast a ballot at the Shorty Howell Park Activity Building in Duluth, Georgia, on the last day of early voting on Oct. 30, 2020. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

The day after Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation overhauling Georgia’s elections, an Atlanta lawyer began establishing a legal network on social media to aid anyone charged under a provision in the law that helped it garner national headlines: the criminalization of handing out food and water to voters at the polls.

Noah Pines said that he initially invited between 10 and 20 colleagues to join the Facebook group “Georgia Lawyers Against Voter Suppression.” As of Wednesday afternoon, the group had 470 members.

Pines said he formed the group to demonstrate to legislators and prosecutors “that there is an army of us ready to fight for anyone charged with this ridiculous law.”

That army could be called upon as early as next week during special elections in three Georgia counties.

Pines and other members of the group also hope that the network becomes fertile ground for clients willing to mount a legal challenge in state court. Four lawsuits against the voting law are pending in federal court.

Pines, whose client list includes former DeKalb Sheriff Jeffrey Mann and Garret Rolfe, the fired Atlanta police officer charged in last summer’s fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks, estimated about 300 of those in the group are fellow attorneys. One said in a post that he was prepared to be arrested for violating the new law.

“For the record, I would ABSOLUTELY be willing to be arrested doing this,” wrote Robert S. Bexley a partner at Bexley & DeLoach LLC in Gwinnett County, on the group social media page on March 29. “The best part is, I don’t look like a lawyer one bit (septum piercing and full sleeve tattoos). I’m down for some good trouble.”

Supporters of the Republican-backed legislation argue it restores integrity to the election system. But Senate Bill 202 has sparked condemnation from voting rights advocates across the nation. They say it will disproportionately affect minority voters in large urban areas.

A way to sway voters?

Two of Atlanta’s largest and most influential corporations last week denounced Senate Bill 202, after threats of boycotts for not initially opposing it. President Joe Biden has called it Jim Crow on steroids, and this past Friday, Major League Baseball moved its All-Star Game from the Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park in Cobb County out concern over the law.

The provision that makes it misdemeanor for non-election workers to provide food and water to voters at the polls is particularly controversial. In a press release this week, Gwinnett County Solicitor Brian Whiteside said it had “no rational, legal basis” and pledged not to prosecute citations issued under it.

But the first test of the law could occur far outside metro Atlanta.

While parts of the legislation won’t apply until July 1, the rest of it, including the food-and-water provision, apparently became “effective upon its approval by the Governor” on March 25, according to the bill.

Members of the Facebook group have identified three rural Georgia counties, Whitfield, Lamar and Brantley, that have special elections scheduled for April 13. Whitfield is part of the U. S. Bureau’s Chattanooga-Cleveland-Dalton combined statistical area. It has a population of more than 100,000. Lamar and Brantley counties each have about 20,000 people and are southeast of Atlanta.

“I haven’t seen anything that would give me pause to prosecute anything in what’s been presented,” Jonathan Adams, District Attorney for north Georgia’s Towaliga Judicial Circuit, which includes Lamar County, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday.

Lamar voters will elect a new magistrate judge next week.

Adams said the intent of lawmakers was to keep campaigns from using food and beverages to sway voters at the last minute, not to get electors to abandon their civil rights because they are hungry and thirsty. Prosecutorial discretion would come into play when considering whether to pursue charges based on any citations that were forwarded to his office, he said.

But Pines said Senate Bill 202 reads as if it forbids him from giving his wife a sip of water out of his water bottle at a polling site.

Pines recalled the last time he voted that it was a warm day. He was standing outside a Fulton County voting center. The was line moving slowly. He watched as people left out of frustration.

“That’s what you don’t want,” he said.