Constitutional amendment to sue over laws passes Georgia Legislature

Georgia Rep. Andy Welch (R-McDonough) speaks on behalf of HR 1023 in the House Chambers during the 31st day of the Georgia legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta, Tuesday, June 16, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Voters will decide in November whether to amend the Georgia Constitution so they can sue the government to stop unconstitutional laws.

The Georgia House voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the measure, which would allow lawsuits to challenge state and local governments over laws they believe have gone too far. The proposal also passed the state Senate the day before, and it now heads to voters.

"All we're doing is giving the keys to the courthouse back to the people," said state Rep. Andrew Welch, a Republican from McDonough.

Georgians lost the ability to use the courts to stop illegal government actions in 2017, when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that citizens couldn't sue the state without the government's permission.

The General Assembly has twice passed bills to restore the ability to go to court over questionable laws, but both times those bills were vetoed, by Gov. Nathan Deal and Gov. Brian Kemp.

In his veto message last year, Kemp opposed bans on suits by people in mental health facilities. He also raised concerns about suits involving breach of contract against government employees and officials.

This time, the people will decide. Governors can't veto proposed constitutional amendments.

The measure approved Tuesday, House Resolution 1023, would give Georgians permission in some cases to sue by waiving the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity rooted in the centuries-old English principle that "the king can do no wrong."

If voters approve, superior court judges would gain the power to grant relief from actions or laws by governments that violate the Georgia Constitution or the U.S. Constitution. Judges wouldn’t be authorized to award damages or attorney fees unless the General Assembly passes legislation to do so in the future.

The ballot question will ask voters, “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?”

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