Lowndes County wins ‘sovereign immunity’ ruling from Georgia Supreme Court

The Nathan Deal Judicial Center in downtown Atlanta (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – The Georgia Supreme Court Monday reversed a lower court decision that would have blocked the Lowndes County Commission from suing a state agency in a dispute over eligibility for state financial aid.

In a unanimous ruling, the justices declared the state cannot use the legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity” as a defense against lawsuits in certain circumstances. Sovereign immunity prohibits citizens from suing state or local governments without their permission.

The case stems from a proposed service delivery agreement Lowndes County drafted in 2016. When the city of Valdosta and four other cities in Lowndes County wouldn’t ratify the agreement, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) stepped in and declared the cities and the county would be ineligible for state financial assistance until they could come to an agreement over how to divvy up the provision of local services.

The county sued the DCA, its commissioner at the time – Camila Knowles – and the mayors and councils of the five cities, arguing the lack of consensus over a new service delivery agreement meant the previous 2008 agreement remained in effect and that the local governments, thus, were still eligible for state aid.

After the DCA and Knowles filed a motion to dismiss the case using sovereign immunity as a defense, the county amended the suit to include as defendants Knowles and members of the DCA board, dropping the agency itself as a party to the suit.

Significantly, the plaintiffs added that they were suing the defendants in their individual capacities rather than in their officials capacities with the DCA.

Both the trial court and the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled against the county on the basis that the actions the DCA commissioner and board members were being sued for were taken in their official capacities, not as individuals, and were therefore protected by sovereign immunity.

But on Monday, the state Supreme Court disagreed, declaring that sovereign immunity generally “does not apply to individual-capacity claims … against state officers and employees alleged to be acting without legal authority.”

“The Georgia Constitution allows only the General Assembly to waive the state’s sovereign immunity,” Justice Nels S.D. Peterson wrote for the court. “Applying the limitation as broadly as the state seeks would eviscerate Georgians’ well-established rights to seek redress against their government.”

Such nuanced arguments over whether the doctrine of sovereign immunity applies in certain lawsuits soon could become moot.

Georgia voters will decide on Election Day Nov. 3 whether to ratify a proposed constitutional amendment the legislature approved this year that essentially would do away with sovereign immunity as a legal defense.

Georgia Republicans, Democrats divided over Supreme Court nominee

ATLANTA – Georgia Republicans and Democrats went to their respective corners after President Donald Trump nominated conservative appellate judge Amy Coney Barrett to succeed the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Peach State’s two Republican senators are all-in on the nomination and pushing for Senate confirmation of Barrett before the Nov. 3 election.

“With her background as a former clerk to the late Justice [Antonin] Scalia and an originalist, Judge Barrett will protect individual liberties including the right to life, the Second Amendment and religious liberties by ensuring the Constitution and our laws are applied as written,” said Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who boasted of being the first senator to call for a vote on the nomination before the election.

“Georgians want a Supreme Court that applies the law, not makes the law,” Sen. David Perdue added. “Throughout her impressive legal career, Judge Barrett has been an ardent defender of the Constitution and steadfast supporter of the rule of law.”

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, Loeffler’s chief Republican opponent in a Nov. 3 special election to replace retired Sen. Johnny Isakson, said putting Barrett on the Supreme Court means a long-awaited opportunity to reverse the 1973 decision that legalized abortion on demand.

“The Supreme Court has a chance to forever change the outlook of our country,” Collins said. “With Judge Barrett, we finally have a chance to overturn Roe v. Wade and give millions of unborn babies a chance to live.”

Democrats are worried over the scenario Collins described.

Jon Ossoff, who is opposing Perdue’s bid for a second term, said several important questions need to be answered before senators vote on Trump’s nominee.

“Will Judge Barrett impartially uphold the rule of law in Roe v. Wade and defend the fundamental right to privacy in health care?” Ossoff asked. “Will Judge Barrett impartially uphold the rule of law and defend the public interest by upholding the Affordable Care Act, which prevents insurance companies from denying health coverage to Americans suffering from cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other pre-existing conditions?”

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, Loeffler’s main Democratic opponent, said he, too, is worried about what putting Barrett on the court could mean for the future of the Affordable Care Act.

“Now is no time to rush through a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court,” Warnock said. “Our health care, voting rights, women’s health and other important issues the next court will decide are too important for a rushed, political process. The next president, whoever it is, should make the appointment and the Senate should have a thoughtful process worthy of the importance of this seat.”

President Trump courts Black voters in Atlanta

President Donald Trump unveiled a “Platinum Plan” for Black Americans in Cobb County Friday.

ATLANTA – Black Americans will recognize President Donald Trump’s historic achievements for the Black community by supporting the Republican’s re-election bid in record numbers, Trump told a mostly Black audience in Atlanta Friday.

In a speech at the Cobb Galleria Centre, the president cited the economic gains Black Americans have made on his watch, including the most job gains in U.S. history, the lowest poverty rate and the largest increase in home ownership.

“I did more for the black community in 47 months than [Democratic challenger] Joe Biden did in 47 years,” Trump said.

Trump’s Georgia trip came as he and former Vice President Biden are locked in a tight race for Georgia’s 16 electoral voters. Pumping up his support among the Peach State’s Black voters, who have overwhelmingly supported Democrats for decades, would go a long way toward sealing victory in a state where Trump leads the polls by a large margin among white voters.

“Our movement is welcoming millions of Black Americans back into the Republican Party, the party of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln,” Trump said.

Trump and speakers who preceded him at the podium – including University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker – cited the president’s support for prison reform, increased funding for historically black colleges and universities and the creation of thousands of economic “opportunity zones.”

The president used Friday’s speech to unveil a “Platinum Plan” for Black Americans for the next four years to build upon the prison reforms accomplished during his first term, address chronic health disparities between white and Black Americans and guarantee school choice to every parent.

Trump criticized Biden’s record as a U.S. senator and vice president, including the role he played in a 1994 crime bill critics say has contributed to a high prison incarceration rate among Black Americans.

In a response released in advance of Trump’s visit, Biden blamed the president’s “failed leadership” in the COVID-19 crisis for the deaths of nearly 6,800 Georgians.

“Black Georgians have been hit particularly hard by this crisis – 3,000 Black Georgians have died, 430,000 Black Georgians are uninsured, and 11.8% of Black Georgians have been left jobless,” Biden said. “In the midst of this global health pandemic and economic crisis, President Trump is still working to tear down the Affordable Care Act and take away protections for Georgians with pre-existing conditions.”

The president was greeted on the runway at Dobbins Air Reserve Base by Georgia’s top Republican elected officials, Gov. Brian Kemp and U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. He recognized each in turn with a shout-out during his speech.

Ponzi scheme lands Georgia man in prison for five years

ATLANTA – A Georgia man has been sentenced to five years in prison followed by three years of supervised release for running a Ponzi scheme that ensnared more than 100 victims.

Syed Arham Arbab, 23, of Atlanta also was ordered to pay $509,032 in restitution to his victims.

As part of a guilty plea entered in federal court last October, Arbab admitted that while enrolled at the University of Georgia in Athens, he solicited investors – many of whom were college students – to invest in two entities he described as hedge funds.

He admitted making misrepresentations to convince the victims to invest about $1 million in Artis Proficio Capital Management and Artis Proficio Capital Investments, promising rates of return as high as 56%. He did not have the liquid capital to make good on these guarantees but did not disclose that to his investors.

Arbab also admitted telling prospective investors a famous pro football player who had played for UGA was an investor and that he was enrolled in a master’s degree program at the university’s Terry College of Business when he had been rejected by Terry College and was running the Ponzi scheme primarily from his fraternity house as an undergraduate.

Arbab spent his investors’ money on personal items, including clothing, fine dining, alcoholic beverages, adult entertainment and interstate travel, including thousands of dollars spent on gambling during three trips to Las Vegas. Arbab was sentenced by U.S. District Judge C. Ashley Royal of the Middle District of Georgia followed an FBI investigation.

U.S. Senate race in Georgia intensifies with Supreme Court pick

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (left), U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (center) and Rev. Raphael Warnock (right) are competing in the Nov. 3 special election.

The race for a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat in Georgia kicked up a notch last week with the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and calls for a Democratic candidate to drop out in favor of the frontrunner.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the Atlanta businesswoman appointed to hold retired Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat until the Nov. 3 special election, released an ad Friday claiming she was “the first senator in America” to back President Donald Trump’s push to nominate a new justice ahead of the upcoming election.

“Our nation desperately needs another pro-life justice who will uphold the Constitution and defend conservative values,” Loeffler said.

The ad also takes aim at her Democratic competitor, Rev. Raphael Warnock, who has signaled he would vote against Trump’s nominee if he were to win the election outright on Nov. 3 – a tall order given the 50% vote threshold any of the 21 candidates in the race will need to cross.

“If that is the case and I can win outright on Nov. 3, the vote from the senator in Georgia might be the difference between setting an entire generation under an ideologue on the court or giving the American people a chance to weigh in,” Warnock said in an interview.

And U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, the Republican from Gainesville who has bludgeoned Loeffler with campaign attacks for months, stirred controversy by criticizing Ginsburg’s court opinions on abortion within hours after her death on Sept. 18.

“RIP to the more than 30 million innocent babies that have been murdered during the decades that Ruth Bader Ginsburg defended pro-abortion laws,” Collins wrote on Twitter.

Ginsburg’s death has catapulted the race for Loeffler’s seat even further into the national spotlight, given the victor could not only tip the balance between conservative and liberal justices on the nation’s highest court, but also decide which party holds a majority in the Senate.

Recent polls have shown Loeffler and Collins running neck-and-neck in the low to mid-20% range, with Warnock creeping up close to them within a few percentage points as his profile elevates with new ads, support from sports figures and his potential influence on the Supreme Court nominee.

It’s for that reason Democratic leaders in Georgia like former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams have renewed calls for candidate Matt Liberman to drop out and unify support for one Democratic candidate in the free-for-all race, in which candidates from all parties will be on the Nov. 3 ballot.

But Lieberman, a health-care consultant and former educator who is the son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, has signaled he does not intend to exit the race due to the large number of undecided voters who might break his way on Election Day.

“It’s been a tight race the whole time,” Lieberman said in a recent interview. “Obviously, [Warnock] has every advantage and he should have pulled away, but he hasn’t.”

Meanwhile, Loeffler drew attention last week for a pair of ads she released calling herself “more conservative” than the 5th-century warlord Attila the Hun. The ads marked the latest move in the fight between Collins and Loeffler to win the title of most conservative candidate as they seek to woo Republican voters.

“The liberal snowflakes of the world melted when they found out that conservative businesswoman Kelly Loeffler was to the right of Attila the Hun,” said Loeffler campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson. “Now that we’re releasing a second ad highlighting Kelly’s pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Trump values, we assume they will probably evaporate.”

In recent months, Loeffler has filed a steady stream of legislation in the Senate focused on immigration enforcement, punishing violent protesters, protecting funds for police agencies and gun-ownership rights. She has also criticized the Black Lives Matter protest movement as she seeks to solidify her image as a pro-law enforcement candidate.

Collins, meanwhile, has long touted his background as a U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain and the son of a Georgia state trooper, emphasizing his law-and-order roots, support for gun-ownership rights and opposition to abortion.

He has also begun firing shots at Warnock, who has largely escaped criticism from Republican contenders in the race as they batter each other. Collins highlighted a recent segment by Fox News host Tucker Carlson that points outs comments Warnock made criticizing police officers while preaching at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he presides as senior pastor.

“Tucker Carlson exposed the hatred for our police from Stacey Abrams’ handpicked candidate for Senate, Mr. Warnock,” Collins said on Twitter. “In the Senate, I’ll continue to back the blue.”

While the Fox News segment featured comments from 2015 describing certain officers as “thugs”, Warnock in a recent interview said he supports officers overall but would vote in the Senate for uniform use-of-force-standards, abolishing qualified immunity and creating a third-party independent body to investigate officer-involved fatal encounters.

“We have got to have public policy that centers on the humanity of black people,” Warnock said. “Black people don’t want more than anyone else. We just want equal treatment under the law.”

Loeffler has made support for law enforcement central to her campaign, capitalizing on broad negative reaction from many conservative voters over instances of violence and vandalism seen during protests against police brutality and racial injustice since June.

She particularly has taken strong stances against calls from some advocates and lawmakers to reduce funding for police departments, going so far as to introduce legislation that would yank federal dollars from cities that shrink their police budgets.

“For months, the radical Left’s ‘defund the police’ movement has promoted violence, chaos and anarchy in cities across our country, while villainizing and attacking the brave men and women in law enforcement who risk their lives to keep us safe,” Loeffler said this month.

As Loeffler and Collins trade blows, Warnock has sought to elevate health care as among the most important issues in the race. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened health-care inequality in communities and acts as proof of the need for expanded access to Medicare and universal insurance coverage, Warnock has said.

“We don’t suffer from a lack of resources,” Warnock said. “We suffer from a lack of political will and moral imagination.”

On the health-care front, Loeffler has focused much of her early activities in the Senate on efforts to block federal funds from groups that provide abortions like Planned Parenthood and to boost access to health-care services for military veterans.

Collins, who has frequently expressed opposition to the Affordable Care Act, aligns with Loeffler and the prevailing Republican stance that favors expanding options for securing health insurance with less government influence on the marketplace.

“Even if you thought it was a good idea to start with, it’s not being funded,” Collins said recently of the Affordable Care Act. “We’ve got to get back to a system that protects pre-existing conditions.”

Amid the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Senate race is steaming for the finish line with less than 40 days until the special election. A runoff will be held in January if none of the 21 candidates including Loeffler can win more than 50% of the vote.

Issues Box

In their own words, he is how Loeffler, Collins and Warnock stand on some key issues:

On health insurance and the Affordable Care Act:

LOEFFLER: “I believe the solution [to health care costs] is not a government-run system that would get rid of employer-provided insurance, shutter our hospitals and raise taxes on the middle class.”

COLLINS: “[The Affordable Care Act] has basically become the anchor that floats off the back of the boat, slowing everything down and causing problems.”

WARNOCK: “[Universal health care] is for me a human right and it is certainly something that the richest nation in the world can and should provide for all its citizens.”

On the impacts of COVID-19 and the continuing economic recovery:

LOEFFLER: “The coronavirus pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives, and the federal response has been in full force to help provide relief.”

COLLINS: “Georgia in particular is an example for other parts of the country to say we can get back out of this and have a get-well mentality instead of a get-sick mentality.”

WARNOCK: “I think we have to remind people that our response is out of love and not out of fear. It is a way of loving your neighbor as you love yourself. And I think we ought to embody that in public policy.”

On law enforcement and police reforms amid nationwide protests:

LOEFFLER: “American cities, businesses and livelihoods are being destroyed as a result of violent rioters and looters. Enough is enough. The violence must stop, and it’s time to hold these criminals and vandals accountable.”

COLLINS: “The training aspect is something that’s more prevalent that we need to look at, at all levels of law enforcement. There are always going to be those moments … when you don’t know what you’re walking into and you have to make a life-or-death decision.”

WARNOCK: “Black people are dying. There’s a human toll that I think we cannot lose sight of in all of this.”

On immigration reform, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and border protection:

LOEFFLER: “For years under the Obama administration, our Southern border was left exposed, incentivizing the flow of illegal immigrants and illicit drugs into our country. President Donald Trump has taken swift action to reverse this trend and prioritized building the border wall to protect Americans and keep our nation safe.”

COLLINS: “I think there’s ways we could fix [DACA] if we could have a more honest conversation.”

WARNOCK: “People need a dignified path to citizenship. What I would abolish is the dehumanization of people.”