Georgia Democrats, unions side with Atlanta in legal dispute with governor over masks

Gov. Brian Kemp’s lawsuit accuses Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of violating his executive orders by banning gatherings of more than 10 people on city property and requiring people to wear masks in Atlanta.

Credit: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

Governor has encouraged but not required face coverings

Georgia’s House and Senate Democratic caucuses and several labor unions filed court papers Monday opposing Gov. Brian Kemp’s lawsuit against Atlanta’s mask mandate and other restrictions focused on the coronavirus pandemic.

In separate filings, the Democrats and unions — including Southern Region Workers United, Service Employees International Union and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 732 — argue Kemp has overstepped his authority and is risking public health.

“The Legislature gave the governor broad emergency powers, but his actions must still be for the purpose of protecting the lives of Georgians,” said state Rep. Matthew Wilson, a Brookhaven Democrat who is leading the legal effort on the House side. “The governor’s lawsuit against Atlanta’s mayor and city council does the opposite of that — it puts more Georgians directly in harm’s way, all to score a few political points.”

In their filing, the unions said Kemp’s “ill-conceived and unlawful effort” could cause “devastating impacts on the health and economic well-being” of their members and their families.

The city responded with its own court filing Monday, saying Kemp’s legal challenge is prohibited by sovereign immunity, the legal doctrine that bars lawsuits against government officials. Atlanta is also arguing that a victory for Kemp could increase “the spread of COVID-19 and the number of lives damaged and lost to it.” Kemp has encouraged but not required masks as part of the emergency orders he has issued amid the pandemic.

“Face masks protect the public by helping to stop the spread of COVID-19 and are most effective when the vast majority of the public wears masks,” Atlanta says in its court filing, adding: “In the absence of state leadership on this issue, local governments have stepped in to protect their citizens.”

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office, which is representing the state in the lawsuit, declined to comment Monday.

Kemp’s lawsuit targets Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ July 10 decision to revert to “phase one” guidelines that encouraged new limits on restaurants and other businesses to contain the disease, and it cast the city’s mask requirements as “void and unenforceable.” The governor says cities and counties are barred from enforcing rules that are more or less restrictive than his own.

Saying Bottoms has sown confusion among Georgians, Kemp is asking the judge to suspend the mayor’s executive orders and prevent her from “issuing press releases, or making statements to the press, that she has the authority to impose more or less restrictive measures” than him.

Meanwhile, Kemp has cast his lawsuit as an ideological battle that goes beyond the courthouse.

“While we all agree that wearing a mask is effective, I’m confident that Georgians don’t need a mandate to do the right thing,” he said at a state Capitol news briefing this month.

Kemp has also assailed critics who have “decided to play politics by exploiting these difficult emotional moments for political gain” and accused Bottoms of undermining the city’s economy by pressing mandates he said were impossible to enforce.

Bottoms and Kemp were scheduled to undergo court-ordered mediation Monday. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jane Barwick ordered the mediation Thursday, just hours after Bottoms disclosed she and Kemp discussed a possible settlement to avoid a contentious court battle over his lawsuit.

A compromise is far from certain, and it will be a scramble for both sides since Barwick still plans to hold a 10 a.m. hearing Tuesday to weigh the merits of the case. Senior Judge Cynthia Wright, a veteran Fulton jurist, was tapped as the mediator.

Bottoms is among several mayors who, frustrated by Kemp’s rollback of restrictions, have defied his order and imposed their own limits. After Savannah became the first Georgia city to require masks, a string of other local governments quickly followed suit. Though several of the state’s biggest cities have adopted mask mandates, many other cities, suburbs and small towns have tried to avoid a legal confrontation.

Still, some cities could get dragged into the litigation. The Georgia Municipal Association said roughly 100 of the 537 cities that belong to the organization have adopted requirements that staffers and visitors in public buildings must wear masks. Those regulations, too, are imperiled by Kemp’s order.

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