Originally created 03/30/03

Suit could empower Perdue



ATLANTA - If Gov. Sonny Perdue wins a lawsuit against the state attorney general, he could become Georgia's most powerful governor, according to some observers.

Such a victory would be good news for Mr. Perdue after he suffered the most humiliating legislative defeat of any governor in recent memory last week when the House overwhelmingly rejected his proposal to raise tobacco taxes.

Mr. Perdue is suing Attorney General Thurbert Baker over a separate case Mr. Baker filed.

Mr. Baker is pushing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court over the first draft of the state Senate district map, drawn two years ago when Mr. Baker's fellow Democrats controlled the Legislature and the governor's office.

Ironically, Mr. Baker, who is black, is championing a case to minimize the voting power of blacks in three districts. Democrats wanted to spread out the black voters over several districts because blacks typically support their party. A federal district court rejected that map, so the Senate drew a new one that was used in last year's elections.

Those elections gave Republicans control of the Senate and the governor's office, and Republicans don't have any interest in fighting for maps that help Democratic candidates. Mr. Perdue asked Mr. Baker to dismiss the case shortly after he was sworn into office.

Mr. Baker refused, and Mr. Perdue sued him. Mr. Perdue's suit will be argued in Fulton County Superior Court April 8, but it's certain to be appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, which has the last say on the state constitution.

The suit all boils down to a single five-letter word: "chief," as in chief executive. The state constitution names the governor as the chief executive officer, while the attorney general is one of five other executive officers.

"I thought the governor was the chief executive," Mr. Perdue said.

Mr. Perdue might have the law on his side.

That's the opinion of Melvin B. Hill Jr., who was the director of the commission that wrote the current version of the constitution enacted in 1983. Today, he's a law and government fellow in the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia.

The commission added the word "chief" in 1983 to resolve the question of power among statewide elected officials.

"The intent was to make it clear that the governor was the first among equals," Mr. Hill said. "I think the governor probably has a stronger case."

But Mr. Baker might have common sense on his side.

He argues that giving the governor dominance over the attorney general could become dangerous. Suppose the attorney general is prosecuting one of the governor's cronies for corruption, Mr. Baker argues.

Could the governor order the attorney general to drop the case? What if a governor is the one suspected of wrongdoing?

"Vested with the authority and duty to represent the state in all legal matters, the attorney general is not and cannot be the mere puppet of the governor," Mr. Baker wrote in one of the many legal briefs already filed.

Besides, Mr. Baker argues, the state constitution intends for the attorney general to be elected separately from the governor to preserve independence. If Mr. Perdue can direct the independently elected attorney general, then he would also have the same power over the commissioners of labor, insurance and agriculture; the superintendent of schools; and the secretary of state.

If Mr. Perdue wins the lawsuit, he could wield much more power. If he loses, he runs the risk of the U.S. Supreme Court approving the Senate district map that could return control of that chamber to the Democrats.

A win for Mr. Baker would help his political prospects. Several publications have mentioned him as a likely candidate for the U.S. Senate when Sen. Zell Miller retires next year.