Lt. Gov. Duncan unveils new version of hate-crimes proposal in Georgia

Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan unveiled his proposal Wednesday to restore a hate-crimes law in Georgia for the first time in 16 years, setting up a legislative showdown over a measure that’s gained momentum amid protests demanding racial justice.

Duncan, a Republican, worked late Tuesday with his aides to finalize a version of the bill that is substantially different from the measure that’s been stalled in the Senate for more than a year after narrowly passing the House.

The proposal, which he detailed at a 10 a.m. press conference, would make a hate crime a stand-alone charge instead of an add-on enhancement to another crime.

Like the House version, it would impose new penalties for crimes motivated by age, gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. But it would include “culture,” “exercise of religious beliefs” and “exercising rights guaranteed by the First Amendment” as protected classes.

And it would allow members of the community to file a warrant to force a grand jury hearing for a hate-crime charge if a prosecutor doesn’t initially do so. The charges would carry a penalty of 1-5 years under the proposal.

The measure also mandates that law enforcement officials track hate crimes for the first time in a state database.

As lawmakers returned to the Capitol this week after a months-long coronavirus hiatus, Duncan has raised the stakes with promises that he’ll break a logjam over hate-crimes legislation that’s persisted since Georgia’s previous law was struck down in 2004.

The Senate has had the House version of hate-crimes legislation for more than a year but has yet to hold a hearing on the bill. In November, Gainesville police arrested a white 16-year-old girl who was accused of planning to visit a predominantly black church that night and kill those inside. In January, Duncan said he did not have a position on hate-crimes legislation.

“This is the right time and the right place in Georgia to lead on this,” Duncan said Wednesday. “We wouldn't be the state we are today if it wasn't for the bold leadership of a few to bring on board the many. This is an awesome opportunity for Georgia to lead on this issue.”

Georgia is now one of only four states without such a law, and powerful corporate and political leaders are increasing the pressure on state leaders to act.

About 500 business executives urged legislators to rally behind a "comprehensive" measure. So have some of Georgia's most veteran politicians, including former President Jimmy Carter and ex-Govs. Nathan Deal and Roy Barnes.

Senate Minority Whip Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat, said while the Democratic Caucus has some concerns about Duncan's proposal, he was encouraged by the inclusion of mandatory tracking of hate crimes and a way for victims to pursue legal action. Still, Jones said, Senates Democrats believe legislation approved by the House in March 2019 is the best opportunity to pass hate-crimes legislation during the few days left in this year's session.

“The bottom line is that we want to get a hate-crime bill passed and, quite frankly, we’re running out of time,” Jones said.

House Democrats were quick to push back against the timing of Duncan’s proposal, saying the impending end of session is too close to properly vet the new legislation.

"It is an insult to our intelligence for this man to say today he has a change of conscience," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman James Beverly of Macon. "Well, if you have a change of conscience, let (House Bill) 426 go through. If you want to do another bill, do the bill. And let us look at it for consideration."

And House Speaker David Ralston has forcefully urged Senate lawmakers to adopt the version of the measure that passed his chamber in March 2019 by a vote of 96-64 — just clearing the 91-vote threshold for approval. During nationwide protests against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Ralston said he's "more committed to a hate-crimes law than ever."

“Chairman (Chuck) Efstration’s hate-crimes bill has bipartisan support and has awaited a hearing in the Senate for 467 days,” Ralston spokesman Kaleb McMichen said. “It is supported by the business community and a wide array of current and former elected officials. There is still time for that measure to reach the governor’s desk before session ends.”

House Minority Whip William Boddie, an East Point Democrat, called HB 426 a "true bipartisan bill."

“The LGBTQ+ community wants this bill, the black caucus wants this bill, the House Democratic Caucus wants this bill, and even the speaker of the House wants this bill,” Boddie said.

One of Ralston's top deputies, House Rules Chairman Richard Smith, a Republican from Columbus, told lawmakers Tuesday that they're "morally required" to adopt the hate-crimes bill before he abruptly adjourned his committee, which determines what measures come up for a vote.

'Meaningful'

Duncan, a former House lawmaker elected in 2018 to preside over the Senate, faces intense pressure to persuade skeptical Republicans in his chamber to back the measure. One of them is Waynesboro Republican state Sen. Jesse Stone, who blocked the bill last year in his Judiciary Committee over concerns that it wouldn't serve as a deterrent.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, left, and House Speaker David Ralston are two key figures in whether the General Assembly passes a hate-crimes bill this year. Ralston has called on the state Senate to pass House Bill 426 as is. If the bill is amended in the Senate, it would have to go back for a final vote in the House, where it won by a slim margin in 2019 and could meet failure in another vote. Duncan, the head of the Senate, has said he thinks the bill needs changes. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, left, and House Speaker David Ralston are two key figures in whether the General Assembly passes a hate-crimes bill this year. Ralston has called on the state Senate to pass House Bill 426 as is. If the bill is amended in the Senate, it would have to go back for a final vote in the House, where it won by a slim margin in 2019 and could meet failure in another vote. Duncan, the head of the Senate, has said he thinks the bill needs changes. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

And even the most minor change would require a new vote in the House, where conservatives could raise fresh objections. State Rep. Philip Singleton, R-Sharpsburg, said he had no confidence the measure would be fairly and consistently applied throughout Georgia.

“Every victim deserves justice,” he said. “This should be equal under the law and not subject to the subjective judgment of the judicial system.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan of Carrollton is among a group of Republicans who have been torn over the issue. He said he decided to support the need for a hate-crimes law in Georgia after spending the past year studying the merits of imposing additional penalties on people convicted of committing crimes motivated by bias.

“What we don’t want to do is try to make a positive change and have the courts overturn it. That would be a repeat of 2000 and we don’t want that,” he said, referring to when the General Assembly passed the previous law. “We want something that’s meaningful and will stand the test of time and is good for Georgia.”

Dugan added: “We don’t pass bills just to pass bills. We pass bills that are going to be good and be constitutional. It’s not just to make a headline.”

But state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat, said he was concerned changes to the legislation will bog down the bill and prevent Georgia from getting a hate-crimes law on the books this year.

“We are up against a legislative clock — to me that is the major issue,” Smyre said. “The urgency of the matter is now. Every day is important.”

The hate-crimes law is not the only criminal justice measure that advocates are pressing during the rebooted legislative session. It wasn’t on a list of demands by the Georgia NAACP, which organized a rally at the state Capitol on Monday to outline a series of policing and electoral changes it wants.

The state NAACP shared concerns on Twitter about Duncan's proposal shortly after the legislation was unveiled.

“During a time when people are literally dying, being murdered and lynched every single day, it is a shame knowing (neither) Geoff Duncan nor anyone from his office ever reached out to ask for our input,” Georgia NAACP President James Woodall said. “This bill does not address the demands our organization nor (activist group) Just Georgia created based on what the communities in Brunswick, Cuthbert, Statesboro, and so many others demand after seeing their neighbors murdered by law enforcement and racist vigilantes.”

Democrats and civil rights activists have called for a repeal of Georgia's citizens arrest law, which was invoked by a local prosecutor to justify the killing of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick. Three white men are charged in Arbery's slaying, and investigators say the gunman muttered a racial epithet after he was killed.

And they also want a rollback of “stand your ground” laws, a state-backed effort to track police violence and new restrictions on the use of deadly force by law enforcement officials.

Ralston said those broader initiatives can’t quickly be addressed during the final stretch of a session expected to end this month.

“Look, now, we’ve got nine days left,” Ralston said Tuesday. “Those are big subjects. Reforming citizen’s arrest and policing reform, I think, are topics that are worthy of discussion. But we certainly don’t want to act on issues like that in haste.”