Two judges recuse themselves from Georgia-Atlanta legal battle over pandemic requirements

Gov. Brian Kemp’s lawsuit accuses Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of violating his executive orders by banning gatherings of more than 10 people on city property and requiring people to wear masks in Atlanta.
Gov. Brian Kemp’s lawsuit accuses Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of violating his executive orders by banning gatherings of more than 10 people on city property and requiring people to wear masks in Atlanta.

Credit: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia Municipal Association sides with Atlanta mayor

The legal battle between Gov. Brian Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic got off to a slow start Tuesday when a pair of judges assigned to the case recused themselves from hearing arguments.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Municipal Association filed court papers that sided with Atlanta and warned that Kemp is attempting to “usurp local control and Home Rule authority” with his lawsuit challenging the city’s mask mandate and other coronavirus restrictions that go beyond his more limited statewide order.

The governor and mayor were set for a court showdown Tuesday, but the proceeding was abruptly canceled after Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly Ellerbe voluntarily removed herself following a request to do so from Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office.

Carr’s spokeswoman said Ellerbe made the decision after disclosing that she spoke with an unnamed appellate judge about a prior opinion that could affect the legal proceedings. The case was then reassigned to Judge Shawn LaGrua, who also voluntarily recused herself — this time because of her ties to Kemp. She had worked as an inspector general for Kemp when he served as Georgia’s secretary of state, and she’s a potential candidate for an open Georgia Supreme Court seat.

It’s now in the hands of Fulton Superior Court Judge Jane Barwick, who has handled another high-profile case: She granted a $500,000 bond last month to fired Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe, who is charged with the June 12 killing of Rayshard Brooks.

Georgia reported 3,413 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 148,988. The state set a daily record for confirmed cases on Saturday with 4,689. It has posted weekly growth in coronavirus cases for seven straight weeks and in nine out of the past 10 weeks, after bottoming out in late May.

The legal case is being closely monitored by government officials and legal experts since it could establish a legal precedent for local control. The municipal association’s filing asserted the governor is violating his authority by seeking to block cities from imposing restrictions such as mask requirements.

The African American Mayors Association — which includes Bottoms and hundreds of other Black mayors nationwide — also announced Tuesday that it is calling on governors to repeal orders or rules that bar local governments from enforcing mask requirements.

Kemp, who has encouraged the use of masks but opposes a legal requirement, had sidestepped a potential courtroom confrontation after Savannah and about a dozen other cities adopted mandates for face coverings. But he singled out Atlanta in a lawsuit last week amid a growing feud with Bottoms, a potential vice presidential nominee.

He targeted Bottoms after the city went a step beyond other local governments by announcing a return to “phase one” pandemic guidelines that urge restaurants to stop in-person dining and encourage residents to stay home for all but essential reasons. And he signed a new order that explicitly outlaws mask mandates.

Saying Bottoms has sown confusion among Georgians, Kemp’s lawsuit urges a 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.

Bottoms is not backing down. The Democrat has accused the Republican governor of playing politics amid the outbreak and mocked his attempt to restrict her statements to the public and the media.

“Far more have sacrificed too much for me to be silent,” Bottoms tweeted Sunday.

Tuesday on Fox News, Kemp countered by accusing Bottoms of playing “pandemic politics.”

“When we have local mayors that start going either above or beyond the executive orders that I have in place,” Kemp said, “and try to pull back on our economy and start shutting our economy and shutting our businesses down, with really a knee-jerk reaction, I can’t allow that.”

Staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.