Gov. Nathan Deal. (CASEY SYKES / CASEY.SYKES@AJC.COM) Casey Sykes
Photo: Casey Sykes
Photo: Casey Sykes

Governor to consider vast new changes to Georgia’s judiciary

A panel created by Gov. Nathan Deal recommended a range of options to counter a landmark Georgia Supreme Court ruling that effectively bars residents from suing the state when trying to overturn a law they believe is unconstitutional.

The findings submitted to Deal on Tuesday by the Court Reform Council also suggested the creation of a statewide business court system and granting new powers to Georgia’s administrative law courts. The governor seems likely to include several of the proposals in a package of legislative priorities headed into his final session, which begins Jan. 8.

The council’s members wrestled over how to respond to the state high court’s June ruling, which said the state, its agencies and its officials are shielded from litigation under the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity, rooted in a centuries-old English principle that “the king can do no wrong.”

The ruling does not affect the right to challenge the constitutionality of a state law in federal court. At the state level, however, it concluded that residents may not sue “the state” to overturn an unfair law. Instead, they may only sue an individual official to stop him or her from enforcing the law.

It sparked an outcry from legal experts and renewed calls for lawmakers to press for changes next year. The Georgia Trial Lawyers Association said changes will ensure the state’s judiciary will “continue enjoying a reputation for being an effective, efficient and fair legal system.”

The council didn’t reach a consensus on a specific change, but it suggested several options that lawmakers could pursue.

Among them was a package of legislation that would allow some legislative challenges that seek to block potentially unconstitutional laws, while shielding individual employees or officers from being targeted by a lawsuit.

The council also urged lawmakers to back a Georgia business court to provide specialized services to resolve complex financial cases. A pilot program in metro Atlanta, created in 2005, has handled about 240 cases and is known for “efficient disposition of matters and accessibility of its judges,” it found.

Two options were suggested for the court: A business court with a statewide jurisdiction based in Atlanta or a system with courts based in various regions of the state, much like Georgia’s network of federal courts.

And the council recommended giving broader powers to the Office of State Administrative Hearings to enter final decisions and to enforce subpoenas to people who don’t appear for hearings.

The governor’s office was mum on which of the proposals Deal would adopt, but he typically uses these types of recommendations as a blueprint for his legislative priorities ahead of each session.

The governor could embrace them as part of a broader effort to remake the state’s criminal justice system that has been at the center of his legislative priorities during his two terms in office.

The overhaul started in Deal’s first term with changes that allowed Georgia to push more nonviolent offenders toward alternative programs and away from expensive prison beds and gave judges more discretion to depart from mandatory sentences.

The second part involved similar legislation that’s aimed at keeping young offenders out of juvenile lockups who were convicted of drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses. And he’s also pushed legislation to expand the state’s appellate court system, adding more judges and responsibilities to both the Court of Appeals and the Georgia Supreme Court.

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