Kemp cancels Tuesday hearing in legal feud with Bottoms

Kemp, Bottoms at odds over coronavirus, protest response

Gov. Brian Kemp’s attorneys canceled a request for an emergency court hearing scheduled Tuesday for his lawsuit against Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a sign that efforts to hash out an out-of-court settlement might be gaining traction.

Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said late Monday that the governor was heartened by a recent concession from Bottoms, and that the hearing would be nixed to give more time for “productive, good faith negotiations with city officials.”

It’s the latest in a dizzying back-and-forth between the Republican governor and the Democratic mayor of Georgia’s capital city that’s extended along two fronts as they race to respond to both the coronavirus pandemic and recent protests, begun in the name of racial justice, that have at times become destructive.

On Friday, Kemp again renewed his emergency order calling for up to 1,000 Georgia National Guardsmen to protect state buildings in Atlanta during the demonstrations, prolonging a source of tension with Bottoms, who has opposed the move.

Three days later, Georgia’s House and Senate Democratic caucuses and several labor unions filed court papers opposing Kemp’s lawsuit against Atlanta’s mask mandate and other restrictions focused on the pandemic.

The legal case has drawn national attention amid the coronavirus outbreak, which had sickened 4.2 million Americans and killed more than 147,000, including about 3,500 in Georgia. Municipalities across Georgia — at least 100 are requiring people to wear masks in their government buildings — are watching the legal proceedings closely.

Late Monday, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jane Barwick pushed their first scheduled hearing back four hours to 2 p.m. Tuesday, giving the governor and mayor more time for mediation. Then came word from Kemp’s office that his request for the hearing was to be pulled back.

In a statement late Monday, Hall pointed to recent remarks from Bottoms emphasizing that new economic restrictions were voluntary and not mandatory. Those limits, known as “phase one” guidelines, were announced by Bottoms earlier this month and urge restaurants to halt dine-in services and residents to stay home if possible.

Bottoms’ camp received reinforcements from several outside groups earlier in the day.

In their court papers filed Monday, the Democrats and unions, including the Service Employees International Union and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 732, argue that Kemp is overstepping his authority and risking public health by suing Atlanta over its response to the pandemic.

“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 papers 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’s lawsuit targets Bottoms’ guidelines concerning the pandemic, which encouraged new limits on restaurants and other businesses to contain the disease. The governor, who has encouraged but not required masks, argues that cities and counties are barred from enforcing rules that are either more or less restrictive than his own. He has accused Bottoms of undermining the city’s economy by pressing mandates he said were impossible to enforce.

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.

“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 this month.

On Thursday, Judge Barwick ordered Kemp and Bottoms into mediation, just hours after the mayor disclosed she and Kemp discussed a possible settlement to avoid a contentious court battle over his lawsuit.

Several of Georgia’s biggest cities — including Athens, Augusta and Savannah — have adopted mask mandates, while many other municipalities have tried to avoid a legal confrontation.

On Friday, Kemp signed an extension of his state of emergency to “preserve the peace and ensure public safety,” said his spokeswoman, Candice Broce. The guardsmen, she added, will continue protecting state property.

The governor’s move came just a day before people vandalized the downtown Atlanta building housing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices. Several windows were broken and the building was spray-painted. The attack on the Ted Turner Drive building prompted the federal immigration courts inside to shut down Monday.

Kemp called out the troops earlier this month despite opposition from Bottoms, who has urged the governor to focus state resources on responding to soaring numbers of coronavirus cases in Georgia. The latest extension keeps them in place through Aug. 10.

The governor signed the first order July 6 after a burst of violence across the city that included the shooting death of an 8-year-old girl and the ransacking of the headquarters of the Georgia State Patrol in southeast Atlanta. He first extended the order on July 13.

“We stand ready to continue to do what the governor has tasked us to do,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas Carden Jr., Georgia’s adjutant general. “We can provide additional forces at his beck and call. We have access to many more thousands of servicemembers.”