Originally created 04/09/03

Judge hears Capitol case on authority



ATLANTA - The debate over who calls the shots in Georgia legal matters is now in the lap of a Fulton County Superior Court judge, who heard more than three hours of argument Tuesday.

Lawyers for Gov. Sonny Perdue said that the state constitution makes the governor the chief executive with authority over the attorney general and the other executive officers elected statewide.

Lawyers for Attorney General Thurbert Baker said other parts of the constitution and state laws give Mr. Baker the say-so on legal issues.

Judge Constance Russell didn't say when she would rule but promised it would be soon.

Mr. Perdue wants Mr. Baker to withdraw an appeal scheduled to come before the U.S. Supreme Court on April 29. That appeal is over state Senate district boundaries drafted by Democrats in 2001 and opposed by Republicans, including Mr. Perdue.

Judge Russell peppered lawyers from both sides with pointed questions. She is the first Georgia judge to have to sort out whether a governor can dictate to the other constitutional officers, which includes the commissioners of labor, insurance and agriculture; the school superintendent; and the secretary of state.

"This case has historic importance for the future of constitutional government in Georgia," said Mr. Baker's attorney, Robert Remar.

Judge Russell asked Mr. Perdue's attorney whether allowing a governor to decide when to appeal or not to appeal cases would be the same as granting a second veto.

"People can disagree in good faith whether or not the governor should have that power, but the constitution gives him that power," attorney Frank C. Jones said, adding that Mr. Perdue cares only about the redistricting appeal and would not interfere with the daily decisions of the attorney general or other constitutional officers.

Legal scholars say a Perdue victory could set a precedent that gives him and future governors wide authority over most of state government. The constitutional officers are elected independently and have traditionally maintained their independence, though past governors wielded influence by controlling their budgets.

Whoever wins the dispute is certain to ask the Georgia Supreme Court to weigh in and to do it before the April 29 deadline for the Supreme Court's hearing on the district map.