ATLANTA — The House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to restore the ability to sue the government for incorrectly administering laws, a tool used by activists and businesses.

One day after the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to end the lawsuits, the House voted 154-9 in favor of House Bill 59, sending it to the Senate for consideration.

The measure by House Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, provides a waiver of sovereign immunity. These are cases when a judge is asked to either make a government agency do something or stop doing something because it is misinterpreting the law, what attorneys call injunctive relief or a declaratory judgment.

“You’re now giving the protection your citizens have had in the past that were removed by the decision last February,” Willard said.
The case that triggered the Supreme Court decision was an appeal of a legal challenge filed by the Center for a Sustainable Coast based in St. Simons Island. It had sued to make the Environmental Protection Division implement its permitting process for temporary disturbances in protected tidal zones, such as the filming of movie scenes. The agency had merely sent a letter granting permission instead of holding hearings and taking public comments.

By the time the state’s highest court heard the appeal, the EPD had convinced the legislature to change the law to allow letters for brief activity in tidal zones.

The justices said that even though they were blocking this route to injunctive relief and declaratory judgments, groups could still sue agency officials personally if they could prove malicious intent.

“We could never win a case on that standard,” said Sustainable Coast’s executive director David Kyler.

In its 18 years, the organization had sued the government many times, but so had other advocacy groups, winning major decisions. Businesses have also used the technique when they felt government wasn’t being fair in applying the law to them as well.

“The passage of Rep. Willard’s bill is an important step toward assuring that citizens have the right to go to court to make the state obey the laws it is charged with enforcing,” said Neill Herring, a lawyer and lobbyist for the Sierra Club.

Officials from the Law Department and the University System of Georgia testified in Willard’s committee that the bill is too broad and would open the door to suits against schools, prisons and other government agencies with judges second-guessing every unpopular government decision. Those concerns are likely to come up again when the Senate holds hearings.

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