Thursday marked the last chance for the majority of legislation in the General Assembly to stay alive this year, and a controversial proposal — that cut across party lines — to approve a new hates crimes law passed the House just before 9 p.m.
House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee Chairman Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula and House Bill 426’s lead sponsor, made an impassioned speech from the House well supporting the bill.
“In 2017, the Douglas County district attorney, a Republican, talked about he desired to charge a criminal offense as a hate crime,” Efstration said. “That’s where 15 individuals were taunting African Americans who were in a park at a child’s birthday party. And as a result of that interaction, a man pointed a shotgun at the party and yelled racial epithets. And the Republican district attorney of Douglas County had to pursue prosecution under the gang statute, because there was no hate crimes statute at the time.”
He pointed to other incidents last year, including swastika graffiti at Centennial High School in Roswell, and mentioned that Gwinnett law enforcement stated there was an increase in “brutal attacks and armed robberies targeted at immigrants.” Efstration recalled one particularly heinous incident involving three men who allegedly attacked Latinos that resulted in one person suffering severe injuries and other — a resident of his district — dying.
“I submit to you that if you honestly search your heart, and you conclude that someone may be more vulnerable to a crime because of being in one of the protected classes where this person could be targeted for an attack, then this bill is needed in Georgia,” Efstration said. “If you honestly search your heart and conclude that hate can be used as a tool for evil in order to undermine the law and order that we take for granted many times in our society, then this bill is absolutely needed.
“If you search your heart and honestly conclude that you want your children and your grandchildren to grow in a society where overt acts of hate are not tolerated, then this bill is needed.”
State Rep. Sheri Gilligan, R-Cumming, spoke against the bill, saying hate crimes laws aren’t enforced the way they’re written, and moreover are suspect because of the people who support them.
“Since 1997, when Bill Clinton, Eric Holder and Clinton’s legal advisor Elena Kagan led the fight to empower these unelected activists to decide what is and is not hate, the biggest stumbling block for them and the entire hate crimes industry has always been women,” Gilligan said. “The internal memos and Congressional debate about hate crime and the hate crime laws in the 1990s were obsessed with ways of keeping women from being counted as victims of hate, because if you counted women, the approximate 10,000 stranger rapes and stranger rape-murders per year would comprise the largest body of hate crimes.”
She added that Georgia residents are lucky to have statutes where all crime victims are equal under the law.
State Rep. Andy Welch, R-McDonough, opened his comments by saying he gave the middle name Johannes to his son because it was the name of his great-grandfather, “who was a tugboat captain in Denmark, in Copenhagen. And he, during World War II, smuggled Jews from Copenhagen to Sweden. When I think of this bill, I think of him and I think of those innocent souls that he saved and those that he did not. And I think he would want me to vote for this, and I think my son would want me to vote for this.”
Dean of the House Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, said at the outset he enjoyed working with Efstration, crafting the legislation. He also called attention to the speech of former state Rep. Dan Ponder, who made a memorable address in service of the state’s first hate crimes law. The state Supreme Court later found it too broad, and therefore unconstitutional.
“I just think about this — 45 states, 45 states have hate crimes statutes,” Smyre said. “Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, Wyoming and Utah (do not). Yesterday, Utah passed it in the Senate, and now it’s in the Utah House. So, I come and ask you very, very strongly to pass House Bill 426.”
State Rep. David Stover, R-Newnan, made a motion to table the bill, but that failed 115-47. H.B. 426 subsequently passed with a vote of 92-64 and heads over to the Senate.
Another bill that made the deadline was Senate Bill 222, which reauthorizes the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, coming more than eight months since the last council lapsed out of existence.
State Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, lauded the work done by Georgians in recent years in helping the state become a national leader on criminal justice reform, but he said there remains a substantial need to stay on task.
“We have a high rate of incarceration — recidivism is still a major problem,” Stone said. “This legislation will address that by extending the council for another six years, by expanding the list of members of the council — all of whom are appointed by the governor — but recognizing the important role that state agencies play in implementing the process.”
Stone brought along with the bill an amendment — Amendment 1 — that adds the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to the agencies that are involved with the council.
State Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, spoke on Amendment 2, which he said was necessary because of a mistake made in legislation by the state House.
“All this does is give the officer discretion, once again, for either a misdemeanor or a local ordinance violation, to issue a citation, as opposed to arrest them on the site,” Albers said. “As an example, if they were driving a car, they would them impound their car and immediately arrest them. This allows us to go back and have that discretion. It fits the exact mold we’re trying to accomplish with this.”
The Senate approved both amendments and passed the bill 55-0.
In the House, members gave approval by a vote of 169-1 to H.B. 382, which provides for who can apply for and receive money generated by the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act.
Those that can receive funds from the new law include local governments, state agencies and nongovernmental entities like environmental nonprofits. The bill also authorizes DNR to use up to 5 percent of the money collected in the Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund for administrative purposes.
The House also passed H.B. 424, which is a companion bull to Efstration’s sex trafficking bill that cleared the chamber Monday. It adds offenses of sex trafficking, keeping a place of prostitution, and pimping and pandering to the state gang crimes law, among other tweaks. The bill passed 171-0.
House legislation providing Georgia residents a way to sue their government also remains active this session, as the chamber passed H.B. 311 by a vote of 168-4.
“We are opening up the courthouse doors for our citizens to come back in and sue, if they need to, for when they believe a statute or an official action by an individual of government at the state or local level is in contravention to our state or federal constitutions, or state law, or rule or regulation if it’s a local government,” said Welch, the lead sponsor. “The (state) Supreme Court ruled in Lathrop v. Deal, and I’ll read from Justice (Keith) Blackwell’s statement, ‘Simply put, the constitutional doctrine of sovereign immunity forbids our courts to entertain a lawsuit against the state without its consent.’
“We are the consenting body. As a General Assembly, we will determine what suits come forward to the courts — in other words, each one of us holds the keys to the courthouse when it comes to challenging government action. And you all represent who — you represent the citizens of this state. Remember, our democracy is based upon the governed giving authority to us to represent them here. It doesn’t work the other way around.”