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Georgians could vote on making it easier to sue governments

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ATLANTA – Georgians could get a chance to vote on making it easier to sue state government under a constitutional amendment moving forward in the General Assembly.

The House voted 163-0 on Thursday to pass House Resolution 1023. It moves to the Senate, where it would need a two-thirds vote to make it to the election ballot for a referendum.

“It makes sense to amend the constitution so that people can come to the courthouse and seek redress,” said Rep. Andy Welch, a McDonough Republican who has been pushing the effort for several years.

Bills to broaden the grounds for suits have been vetoed twice, first by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2016 and then again by Gov. Brian Kemp last year. However, the governor has no power to reject a proposed constitutional amendment.

Lawmakers are reacting to a 2014 state Supreme Court decision that says state and local governments can only be sued when they have waived a legal doctrine called sovereign immunity. That’s a principle descended from English common law, commonly described as “the king can do no wrong.” When Georgia overthrew the king in 1776, that cloak of legal protection transferred to the state government.

There were plenty of suits against Georgia governments over the centuries, but in 2014, the state Supreme Court reinterpreted a 1991 state constitutional amendment to say an environmental group was barred from asking a judge to order the state Department of Natural Resources to follow the law. While citizens can still sue governments for breach of contract or injuries suffered under carve-outs to sovereign immunity, they often can’t go to court and ask that a government action be found illegal or unconstitutional, with a judge then ordering the agency to follow the law.

Welch’s amendment would allow governments to be sued for illegal acts, but would not allow judges to enter an injunction ordering a government to do something. It would also not allow a judge to award damages, attorney’s fees or court costs at the end of a successful lawsuit. The General Assembly could later choose to provide for injunctions and damages under regular state law.

The measure, while allowing governments to be sued, would prohibit suing individual officers. The state Supreme Court had said that suing individual officials was the proper recourse when seeking relief from illegal government acts. Removing liability from individuals has in the past raised concerns that it could be harder to sue police officers and other officials for law enforcement misconduct. Such suits often seek to hold individuals and governments liable.