Proposed rule would shield Georgia senators from disclosing legislative work

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Georgia’s Republican senators say they are seeking to clarify the chamber’s position on “legislative immunity,” which shields lawmakers from sharing certain information.

The General Assembly long ago exempted itself from the state’s Open Record Act that all other government officials must obey, a statute designed to ensure the public knows what its elected officials are doing. The Legislature in recent years has gone to court to avoid having to release General Assembly documents.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, proposed on Monday a change to the chamber’s rules to explicitly shield members from having to discuss their “speech and conduct” when they are engaged in “legitimate legislative activity” — and disclosing what their colleagues say or do would violate the integrity of “legislative privilege.”

“If you and your colleague to your right or left are having a conversation about a piece of legislation, you would have immunity as well as your colleague you’re talking to,” Gooch said when asked to explain the rule change. “And so you would not be able to reveal the conversation that you and she are having without jeopardizing the immunity that that senator also enjoys.”

The rule would also apply to when senators overhear conversations.

Democrats pushed back on the change, with all of them voting against the proposal. Though Republicans hold the majority, three GOP senators were absent today and one seat previously held by a Republican is vacant, causing the vote to fall one short of the 29 needed to pass. Senators are expected to take the measure up again Wednesday.

Gooch said the proposal is in response to recent legal debates over what is and isn’t legislative privilege. The rule addresses a portion of the state constitution that states, “no member shall be liable to answer in any other place for anything spoken in either house or in any committee meeting of either house.”

In a statement, Gooch said he proposed the rule to make sure senators understand the privilege that comes with the position.

“The Senate rule is intended to emphasize the importance of the privilege (of) the work that the Senate does on behalf of the citizens of this state,” he said.

Democrats say the rule change is an attempt to discourage senators from sharing information about the work they or their colleagues do if, for example, they are compelled to testify in court. Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler said Democrats voted against the proposal because it was drafted without input from the caucus.

“We will vote yes for a bipartisan rules package crafted in a transparent, bipartisan manner,” she said. “While Senate rules are intended to guide decorum and our work in the Senate, the proposed changes appear to lack transparency and the oversight the public is entitled to.”

Another proposed change would require that the Senate president pro tem vacate the leadership position if he or she runs for another office.

When former Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor last year, he declined to step down from his position — drawing the ire of some of his Senate colleagues. Miller also filed a handful of bills that had strong support among the GOP base in an attempt to stand out in the four-way primary.

“Candidly, sometimes running for another office makes people say and do things that not all members of the caucus agree with, and we want to make sure we avoid that in the future,” Gooch said.