The question of whether Georgia residents can sue the state moved a step towards being decided by voters Thursday with the passage of a House resolution.
A bill that would have allowed lawsuits over unconstitutional state laws was vetoed by Gov. Brian Kemp in 2019 despite unanimous passage by the House and Senate. House Resolution 1023, passed unanimously Thursday, would take the decision out of the governor’s hands and put it on Georgians’ ballots.
Residents have not been able to sue in state courts to stop illegal government action since 2017, when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the suits required government permission. The resolution would put a referendum on the statewide ballot asking whether to void the constitutional doctrine of sovereign immunity, which bars lawsuits against the government.
“Sovereign immunity is the old adage that the king can do nothing wrong,” said state Rep. Andy Welch, the resolution’s sponsor. Welch, R-McDonough, also sponsored HB 311 in 2019. “It was an old English legal theory that the sovereign was immune from the suit because he was appointed by God.”
Sovereign immunity was added to the Georgia constitution in 1991, and has been interpreted by the Georgia Supreme Court to mean that the state is immune from being sued by people alleging its actions violate the law. For those suits to go forward, the General Assembly must waive sovereign immunity, according to the 1991 amendment.
HR 1023 calls for a constitutional amendment and will need approval by at least two-thirds of both the House and the Senate before being put on the state ballot. If it receives a majority in a public vote, it will be added to the state constitution.
Welch is hopeful that the amendment route will be successful. He said the new strategy is not personal regarding Kemp.
“This is not me versus the governor,” Welch said. “Sovereign immunity is in our constitution, and, in order to change that, we need a constitutional amendment.”
Sovereign immunity bills have been vetoed both by Kemp and former Gov. Nathan Deal. In 2019, Kemp invoked Deal’s veto message, which said a similar 2016 bill would allow “unprecedented judicial intervention into daily management decisions,” and said legislators should work closer with the executive branch on the issue.
Kemp’s office declined to comment on HR 1023’s passage Thursday.
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