Boggs to become Georgia’s next chief justice

Georgia Supreme Court Justice Michael Boggs

ATLANTA – Members of the Georgia Supreme Court have unanimously elected Michael Boggs to become the state’s next chief justice.

Boggs, who now serves in the leadership position of presiding justice, will succeed David Nahmias as chief justice in July. Nahmias announced last month he would be leaving the court to spend more time with his family.

Boggs was appointed to the high court in 2016 by then-Gov. Nathan Deal. He was elected to a six-year term two years later.

Before joining the state Supreme Court, Boggs served on the Georgia Court of Appeals – the state’s intermediate appellate court – and as a Superior Court judge in the Waycross Judicial Circuit.

Prior to his judicial service, Boggs served two terms in the state House of Representatives representing a district in southeastern Georgia.

The Supreme Court also unanimously elected Nels S.D. Peterson to take over as presiding justice when Boggs moves up to chief justice.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia Supreme Court rejects licensing for lactation care

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

ATLANTA – A state law requiring lactation care providers to obtain a license is unconstitutional, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday.

The case goes back to 2016, when the General Assembly passed legislation requiring a state license to offer lactation care and limiting licenses to businesses that obtain a privately issued certification as an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC).

Certified lactation consultant Mary Jackson of Fulton County and a nonprofit organization known as Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere sued the Georgia secretary of state’s office, claiming the law violated their rights to due process and equal protection because it would require them to cease practicing their chosen profession.

The suit also maintained the law lacked any substantive connection to public health or safety and that there was no evidence to show non-IBCLC lactation care providers had ever harmed the public.

In Wednesday’s ruling, Chief Justice Michael Boggs reversed the trial court’s decision, which had been in favor of the state, and found in favor of the plaintiffs.

“Not every burden on the ability to pursue a lawful occupation will be unconstitutional,” Boggs wrote. “Sometimes, a regulation will be ‘rational’ in the sense that it is reasonably necessary. … But if the challenger can establish that a regulation imposing restrictions on a lawful occupation does not advance the articulated public purpose by means that are reasonably necessary for that purpose, then the regulation cannot stand.”

While Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger technically lost the case as the head of the agency that was sued, he praised the ruling Wednesday. Raffensperger said he voted against the 2016 legislation while serving as a Republican member of the Georgia House of Representatives.

Raffensperger argued that prohibiting consultants from providing lactation care without going through the process of obtaining a license may actually cause “a greater risk of harm because the majority of lactation consultant providers would no longer be able to provide care.”

Raffensperger recently formed a commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the professions that require a license in Georgia and whether licensing is necessary for that line of work.

Burns urges Fulton DA not to ignore case backlog while investigating Trump

Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns

ATLANTA – While Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis investigates allegations that then-President Donald Trump interfered with the 2020 presidential election in Georgia, her office also should handle its day-to-day duties, state House Speaker Jon Burns said Thursday.

“They need to make sure they have the resources and bandwidth to take care of both issues,” Burns, R-Newington, told members of the Atlanta Press Club during a luncheon speech in downtown Atlanta.

The special-purpose grand jury Willis empaneled last year to investigate Trump’s alleged role in trying to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia completed its work and issued its findings in December. The portion of the panel’s report Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney allowed to be released concluded the election results were legitimate and recommended that one or more witnesses who appeared before it be indicted for perjury.

On Thursday, Burns cited remarks Georgia Chief Justice Michael Boggs made on Wednesday in his State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the General Assembly.

While Boggs’ theme was the huge backlog of criminal cases courts throughout Georgia face in the aftermath of the pandemic, he put some numbers to the backlog in Fulton County. He said Fulton is currently saddled with more than 4,000 pending felony indicted cases and almost 14,000 unindicted felony cases.

Burns made his remarks Thursday while defending legislation the House passed this week calling for the creation of a Prosecuting Attorneys Oversight Commission to investigate complaints against prosecutors and hold hearings.

Democrats have complained legislative Republicans are pushing the bill in response to Willis targeting Trump, a charge Burns rejected by pointing out that judges in Georgia are subject to commission oversight.

“I don’t think our district attorneys in this state should be treated any different than our judges,” he said. “We just want them to adhere to the law and apply it equally to every Georgian.”

During his speech, Burns also praised his House colleagues from both parties for passing legislation following through on last year’s landmark mental-health reform bill steered through the chamber by his predecessor as speaker, the late David Ralston.

“The House has been champions of mental-health reform in this state,” Burns said. “It began with Speaker Ralston.”

Burns, who was elected speaker by his fellow House members in January, also urged the state Senate to follow the House’s lead by passing bills aimed at breaking a legal logjam holding up Georgia’s medical cannabis program, giving tenants more legal rights in dealing with “troubling landlords,” and funding a proposed state police patrol post in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta.

Georgia chief justice: Case backlog plaguing court system

Georgia Chief Justice Michael Boggs

ATLANTA – While Georgia’s judiciary is emerging from three years of pandemic, a serious backlog of cases still looms over the state’s judicial system, Georgia Chief Justice Michael Boggs told state lawmakers Wednesday.

“The numbers in certain parts of Georgia are truly astounding,” Boggs, who became chief justice last July, said during his first State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the Georgia House and Senate. “The resolution will not be easy.”

Boggs said the backlog would have grown worse were it not for $110 million in federal pandemic relief funds Gov. Brian Kemp and the General Assembly committed to the court system. After the number of serious violent felony cases increased by 36.3% between 2019 and 2021, circuits receiving pandemic relief grants saw pending cases fall by nearly 12% between the end of 2021 and last August, Boggs said.

After plummeting 75% between 2019 and 2020, the number of felony jury trials had risen more than 182% by the end of 2021, Boggs reported.

Like many other industries and professions, the Georgia judiciary also is suffering from a workforce shortage, especially in rural parts of the state, the chief justice said. As a result, a growing number of suspects charged with crimes but not convicted are languishing in jail, he said.

“In our system, punishment is supposed to follow conviction, not precede it,” he said.

Boggs thanked Kemp and the General Assembly for responding to the workforce shortage by bringing the salaries of the state’s public defenders in line with what prosecutors are paid.

During a 29-minute speech, Boggs also pointed to innovative initiatives the judiciary is undertaking to improve access to justice in Georgia, including deploying technology that allows remote conferencing, setting up treatment centers for juvenile victims of human trafficking, expanding legal services to veterans, and adding interpreters to help Georgia’s increasing population of foreign language speakers.

Boggs praised the governor and legislature for creating the Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission to address the need for improvements in mental health-care delivery in Georgia. He noted that 25% of the state’s incarcerated population have been diagnosed with mental health issues.

Moving forward, Boggs said the safety of judges will be a focus of the court system this year. Last month, the Georgia Supreme Court created a standing committee on judicial security.

“Our judicial system depends on judges deciding cases without fear,” he said. “This includes fear for their personal safety or the safety of their families.”

Georgia Supreme Court hears arguments about immunizations for children in state custody

Photo credit: Scott Housley/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

ATLANTA – The Georgia Supreme Court Thursday considered whether children in temporary custody can receive routine immunizations over their parents’ objections, though recent changes to state policy may make the case moot. 

The state Department of Human Services (DHS), which oversees child welfare and foster care, sent a June 1 memo directing employees not to seek immunizations for children in temporary custody if their parents hold sincere religious objections.

In 2021, the state removed three children from their parents’ custody because of severe physical abuse by the father.

The removal was temporary, with a plan in place to eventually reunify the family after the parents met certain requirements.

The biological parents objected to their children receiving their routine childhood vaccines. They asked the Forsyth County juvenile court to stop the state from having the children immunized, claiming religious and philosophical objections.    

The juvenile court denied that request, leading to the appeal to the Supreme Court.    

Typically, parents whose children are in custody have the right to visit their children and the right to object or consent to an adoption.    

This case considered whether parents’ rights extend further such that they could direct medical or religious aspects of their children’s lives even after the children have been removed from custody.   

“If the state is doing certain things to protect the best interests of the child that… to others may have a really important religious overlay [such as immunization]: that collision is why we’re here,” said Justice Sarah Hawkins Warren.    

While the removal from custody was only temporary, immunizations are irreversible, the lawyer for the parents, David Hume, contended.    

“Parents expect…their rights to be fully restored at end of temporary custody…and that includes the right to direct the religious upbringing of their children and the right to object to vaccinating their children,” Hume said.    

“If the children are vaccinated…over the religious objections of the parents, then that right will be lost forever,” Hume added.    

 But once children have been removed from their parents’ custody, parents retain very limited rights to decide what is in the children’s best interests, argued Stephen Petrany, the Georgia solicitor general, on behalf of the Department of Human Services, which oversees foster care.   

“The parents have been deemed unfit because their children were being abused,” Petrany said. “The parental rights, the [religious] liberty right … is dependent on their being fit parents.”

“DFCS (The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services) and the juvenile court have to go with what their view of the best interest of the child is.”  

In this case, that would be providing the children with their routine childhood immunizations, Petrany said.  

DHS Commissioner Candice Broce sent a memo to DFCS employees on June 1 directing them not to seek immunizations for any child in temporary custody if the child’s parents hold a sincere religious objection.

Likewise, DFCS cannot direct foster parents and others caring for children in custody to have their own children immunized if they hold sincere religious beliefs opposing it, the memo said.   

Petrany, the DHS lawyer, said the agency’s recent change in policy was not due to the dispute in this case. 

Thursday marked David Nahmias’s last day hearing arguments as chief justice. Nahmias will resign on July 17, and Michael Boggs will take over as chief justice.    

The court next meets to hear oral arguments on Aug. 23.  

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.