Capitol Recap: Judge blocks Georgia abortion law, leaving it up to high court

Ban at six weeks into pregnancy will return to 22 weeks

Georgia legislators want to see what the state Supreme Court does before they propose any new limits on abortion after a Fulton County judge overturned the state’s 2019 ban on the procedure once fetal cardiac activity has been detected.

Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney blocked enforcement of the ban, which typically takes effect about six weeks into a pregnancy and before many know they are pregnant.

The Georgia law took effect in July after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it could be enforced after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in its June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

McBurney’s order restores the limits on abortion that existed in Georgia before the 2019 law took effect — meaning the procedure is once again allowed up until about 22 weeks of pregnancy. The attorney general’s office appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

The Fulton judge’s decision was based on timing.

Attorneys for abortion rights activists and providers argued last month that when the General Assembly passed the fetal cardiac bill into law, Roe v. Wade — the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed a right to an abortion until a fetus was viable outside the mother’s body — was the law of the land. State law, they said, does not allow the Legislature to enact statutes that violate the law.

McBurney agreed. The judge told legislators that any change in the state’s previous abortion law would have to go back through the legislative process.

“Our state legislators are now, under Dobbs, free to move away from a post-viability ban in an effort to strike a different balance between the interests of fetal life and women’s bodily autonomy, should they conclude that that is what is best for Georgians,” McBurney wrote.

Republican legislative leaders didn’t indicate whether they’d pursue legislation next year. Instead, they said they were certain the high court will rule in their favor.

“Obviously, the state’s legal team has strong grounds for appealing this illogical ruling,” state Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch said. “The Legislature acted to protect the unborn on behalf of the people of Georgia, and we are confident that the unfortunate situation created by a lone judge’s opinion will be temporary and quickly resolved within the judiciary.”

The law traveled a difficult path in 2019 — the House approved it by a single vote, even though Republicans held 105 seats to 75 for Democrats. It could be even harder in 2023, after Democrats narrowed the GOP majority in that chamber by four seats.

McBurney did leave in place “personhood” portions of the law, such as allowing parents to claim a zygote or fetus as a dependent on their taxes.

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood reported that it has been “flooded with calls,” and several clinics said they have begun performing abortions again for patients more than six weeks pregnant.



Judge’s ruling provides for a Saturday of early voting in Senate runoff

Counties will now be able to open their polling sites for early voters on the Saturday following Thanksgiving after a Fulton County judge sided with Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Raffensperger, based on how attorneys for his office read a state law, said early voting could not be held during the two days that follow a holiday.

That would have blocked early voting on Nov. 26, the only Saturday available before the Dec. 6 runoff, because it falls two days after Thanksgiving and one day after a state holiday formerly known as Robert E. Lee’s Birthday. (Gov. Nathan Deal in 2015 changed the day’s name to the more neutral “State Holiday,” which is still observed on the same day on the calendar.)

Warnock and the state Democratic Party then filed a lawsuit seeking to provide early voting on that Saturday during his Dec. 6 runoff against Republican Herschel Walker.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thomas Cox ruled that counties can choose to add Nov. 26 as an optional early voting day, along with this coming Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday, Nov. 27. State law requires at least five days of early voting for a runoff that must end the Friday before election day — in this case, it would come to a halt on Dec. 2.

Warnock had argued that Raffensperger’s office had misinterpreted a 2016 state law that blocked early voting so close to a holiday, warning that it could mean “workers who punch a clock may not be able to make it to the polls.”

The senator’s campaign attorney, Uzoma Nkwonta, pointed out in court that legislators specifically removed the word “runoff” from the law in 2017, indicating they intended for early voting to be permitted.

In 2020, early voting occurred the day after Christmas, when 15,600 voters in three counties cast ballots in the U.S. Senate runoffs that Warnock and Jon Ossoff won, flipping control of the chamber to Democrats.

It was after that race that the General Assembly passed a law overhauling the state’s election system that included cutting the runoff period down from nine weeks to the four.

Walker had not weighed in on the case, and he apparently did not know voters would be able to cast ballots before Dec. 6.

At a rally this past week in Jefferson, he told a staff member, “I don’t think they have early voting, do they?”

Informed there would be early voting, Walker asked: “They have one day? Two days?”

Told it was one week, he appeared surprised.

“One week! A week? We ought to cut it down from a week,” Walker said. “Well, if they give you a week, take that week and do that. You’ve got to get out and vote.”

Several counties have already voted to allow Saturday voting, including Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas and Fulton.

The judge’s order permits more counties to add Saturday voting without having to comply with laws that would require published notice seven days ahead of time.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

Burns wins bid to become House speaker

Jon Burns will be the next speaker of the Georgia House.

That won’t become official until the General Assembly returns in January to start its 2023 session, but the real work was done this past week.

Until then, Jan Jones of Milton will serve as speaker following the death of David Ralston.

Ralston had announced earlier this month that he would step down from the top position in the House to deal with health issues. He died Wednesday.

The Republican majority in the House picked Burns over state Rep. Barry Fleming of Harlem, who may be best known as the author of the voting law the General Assembly passed last year after the presidential election that more tightly regulated absentee voting, allowed state takeovers of county elections and required faster ballot counting on election night.

Burns, who has served as majority leader since 2015, was considered the candidate most likely to take Ralston’s more consensus-driven approach.

In Fleming’s corner were some of the House’s more conservative members, including the Freedom Caucus and Rural Caucus.

The election by secret ballot makes Burns one of the most powerful politicians in Georgia, along with Gov. Brian Kemp and incoming Lt. Gov. Burt Jones. The speaker has the power to appoint leaders of committees, influence which bills receive a vote and preside over the chamber’s day-to-day activities.

Burns said he supports Georgia’s election laws, limitations on abortion and efforts to improve the economy in rural parts of the state.

House Minority Leader James Beverly offered praise for Burns’ elevation to the top role. The Democrat from Macon said he worked with Burns to help pass several bills with bipartisan support during the 2022 legislative session.

“Burns and I were locked in tough negotiations,” Beverly said. “Through the gridlock and the back-and-forth, Burns kept his word.”

Kemp congratulated Burns.

“He has the temperament and knowledge to do the job well and will continue to serve the people of our state with distinction as speaker of the House,” Kemp said.

If there’s any doubt that Burns and Kemp are on the same page, their speeches should have put that to rest.

Speaking about the Nov. 8 election that allowed Republicans to maintain their grip on the General Assembly and win nearly every statewide race, Burns said: “We fought hard to keep Georgia the best place in the nation to live, work and raise a family.”

Kemp, on Burns’ selection: “I look forward to continuing to work with him to ensure Georgia remains the best state to live, work and raise a family.”



Kemp testifies before Fulton grand jury investigating Trump

Gov. Brian Kemp spent about three hours this past week testifying before a Fulton County special grand jury that is investigating whether then-President Donald Trump and his allies criminally meddled in Georgia’s 2020 election.

What he said isn’t known, since grand jury proceedings are secret.

The governor is considered a central witness in the investigation that Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis launched after hearing leaked audio from Trump’s phone conversation with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Jan. 2, 2021.

It was during that conversation that Trump implored Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s win in Georgia.

Following that election, Kemp faced attacks from Trump and his allies after the governor refused their calls to illegally convene a special session of the state Legislature to undo Biden’s victory. Kemp said state law barred him from “interfering.”

The governor then became a frequent target at Trump rallies. Trump said he was “ashamed” that he had endorsed Kemp in 2018, and the former president last year recruited ex-U.S. Sen. David Perdue to challenge Kemp in the GOP primary. Kemp beat Perdue by more than 50 percentage points.

Fulton prosecutors previously said they were interested in questioning Kemp about who tried to contact him following the 2020 elections; the contents of phone calls Kemp had with Trump or his associates; evidence the Trump campaign provided in support of its claims the Georgia election was rigged; whether Trump specifically sought a special election or other relief; and any threats that might have been made.

Credit: Daniel Vernando for the AJC

Credit: Daniel Vernando for the AJC

Walker makes a pitch for ‘gas-guzzling cars’

By landing multibillion-dollar plants from Hyundai and Rivian, Georgia has carved out a nice place for itself in the electric-vehicle industry that’s expected to grow as concerns about climate change intensify.

So it may have surprised some when Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker came out this past week in support of “gas-guzzling cars.”

“If we was ready for the green agenda, I’d raise my hand right now. But we’re not ready right now,” he said. “So don’t let them fool you like this is a new agenda. … What we need to do is keep having those gas-guzzling cars, ‘cause we got the good emissions under those cars.”

The pitch for those “good emissions” joins some other puzzling comments Walker has made concerning climate change.

At a Hall County GOP meeting in July, Walker offered a theory about the bad choices air can make.

“Since we don’t control the air, our good air decided to float over to China’s bad air. So when China gets our good air, their bad air gotta move. So it moves over to our good air space. Then, now, we’ve got to clean that back up,” Walker said.

Walker later told News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB that he was “really just being funny” when he made the comment. But he also said he didn’t understand what all the fuss was about because China is the globe’s top polluter.

Political expedience

  • Extension for civil rights cold cases: Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff helped gain more time for a federal board to investigate the unsolved killings of Black people during the civil rights era when one of his bills gained final passage this past week. The bill, which Ossoff filed with Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, gives the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board until 2027 to complete its work. The board was created in 2019, and it had been given four years to do the job. But then-President Donald Trump never appointed any members to the board. President Joe Biden named four members to the board in June 2021, including three with ties to Atlanta. They were all confirmed in February. The Senate approved the legislation in September, and the House OK’d it this past week.
  • Leadership fight possible when House Democrats vote: Minority Leader James Beverly of Macon is expected to face a challenge from state Rep. Carolyn Hugley, a longtime Columbus legislator and ally of two-time Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, when House Democrats pick their leadership Tuesday.
  • House GOP fills its top posts: In addition to picking Jon Burns for speaker, House Republicans filled their other leadership positions. State Rep. Jan Jones of Milton, first elected speaker pro tem in 2010, will continue in that role as the House‘s second-most-powerful member. State Rep. Chuck Efstration of Dacula won the party’s nod as majority leader.
  • Kennedy to be Senate president pro tem: The Republican majority in the state Senate picked its leaders earlier this month. State Sen. John Kennedy of Macon will be the chamber’s next president pro tem, the second-highest-ranking member of the chamber behind soon-to-be Lt. Gov. Burt Jones. Kennedy will take over for state Sen. Butch Miller, who lost to Jones in the Republican primary.

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