Judge Orders Mediation in Georgia’s Mask Mandate Lawsuit

ATLANTA (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS) -
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp. (georgia.gov)

A Fulton County Superior Court Judge on Thursday ordered Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms into mediation over their legal dispute about how to best respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

It will be a scramble for both sides as Judge Jane Barwick is keeping their first hearing in the case set for Tuesday morning. She has named Senior Judge Cynthia Wright as their mediator.

“The court has reviewed the above-styled case and it appears that the interests of the parties and the orderly management of this court’s business would be served by forwarding this matter to mediation,” Barwick wrote in an order issued Thursday afternoon.

The move came after the Democratic mayor disclosed she had discussed with the Republican governor a possible settlement of his lawsuit challenging the city’s mask mandate and other coronavirus restrictions that would avoid a contentious court battle. During an online discussion with reporters Thursday, Bottoms said she had a “very good conversation” with Kemp Wednesday over the litigation he filed that seeks to block her restrictions because they are more restrictive than his statewide order. The mayor said the two agree “masks save lives.”

“It is abundantly clear that we both want what is best for the people of our city and our state and that is for us to be safe and to be able to be free of COVID-19,” said Bottoms, who is being represented by the Atlanta law firm of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore. “We will continue to work together to try to iron out those things that we disagree on and hopefully we can move past it. It is not my desire as mayor of this city to have a very public fight with the governor of this state.

“I do believe there is a finite amount of energy that we all have. I would much rather spend my energy focusing on leading our city through COVID-19 and many other challenges that we are now facing and I trust that the governor would like to do the same on behalf of the state.”

Kemp’s office said Thursday that the conversation was “productive” and indicated that the mayor initiated the discussions, but declined further comment. The Georgia attorney general’s office is representing the state. Other Republicans welcomed the prospect of a deal.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Kemp ally who nonetheless has distanced himself from the legal complaint, said the negotiations were a “positive development” and that he hoped “their differences can be resolved outside of a courtroom.”

Kemp filed the lawsuit last week amid escalating tensions with the mayor. It targeted Bottoms’ July 10 decision to revert to “phase one” guidelines that encouraged new limits on restaurants and other businesses to contain the disease, and casts the city’s mask requirements as “void and unenforceable.”

Bottoms had previously said she was prepared for a lengthy legal battle to defend the city’s order, pointing out that she and two family members are among the more than 100,000 Georgians who have tested positive for the disease.

And this week, the city was joined by the Georgia Municipal Association, which filed court papers that accused Kemp of attempting to “usurp local control and Home Rule authority” by seeking to block cities from taking additional steps. Atlanta is among more than a dozen Georgia cities with mask mandates, but the only to also institute “phase one” restrictions.

A settlement would end the nasty legal feud between the governor and the mayor of Georgia’s capital city that was slated to land in a courtroom this week but was abruptly postponed until Tuesday after two judges recused themselves.

It also could remove a potential distraction for Bottoms, who is considered a top contender to be Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate. The lawsuit has helped further elevate her national profile, but the consequences of a legal defeat could fuel Republican attacks.

It’s possible Kemp could settle for a declaratory judgement that Atlanta’s return to “phase one” of its pandemic requirements is only voluntary guidance and that no businesses are required to close or limit their operations, said Clark D. Cunningham, a law professor at Georgia State University.

“The mayor’s statements at today’s press conference about the city’s reopening plan being only voluntary guidelines sounded like they might have been negotiated in her conversation with the governor yesterday — and so that part of the lawsuit may be moot,” he said. “But the ban on more than 10 people on city property and the requirement to wear masks still seem to be at issue between the governor and mayor.”