Georgia Supreme Court’s spaceport case pits 1st Amendment vs. county home rule
The Georgia Supreme Court blocked Camden County’s attempt to prevent the certification of a special election on March 8 in which residents voted against the purchase of land for commercial rocket launches. On Aug. 22, the same court will decide whether the Georgia constitutional provision used in the referendum was legal. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder
The Georgia Supreme Court is set to hear a case next month that First Amendment experts say could create significant barriers to voters who want to use a public initiative to rein in their local elected officials.
It’s the latest episode in the long-running Camden County efforts to build a spaceport on the Georgia coast. The county is challenging a clause in the Georgia Constitution that paved the way for a special election that is blocking the purchase of 4,000 acres near the Atlantic Ocean where Camden officials plan the controversial rocket launching spaceport.
During a two-year period, Camden residents obtained the signatures of more than 10% of registered voters required to put the referendum on the ballot.
And in the March 8 election, voters rejected a resolution permitting the county to complete the land deal with Union Carbide Corp. as residents objected to a still-running spaceport tab that now exceeds $11 million. Meanwhile, opponents continue to complain about the potential that rockets launched from the spaceport could explode, raining debris onto federally protected areas and 40 private homes located over Cumberland Island.
Clare Norins, director of the University of Georgia School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic, wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief that the county is unable to provide evidence that supports its view that county’s authority to conduct business is severely threatened by giving voters the power of a referendum that allows the public to air its grievances through protected political speech.
Because the majority of county laws that affect residents are passed by county and other local officials as opposed to the Georgia General Assembly, the referendum affords residents the ability to veto measures like the Camden spaceport where many residents felt they were being ignored as county commissioners pursued a prolonged quest to launch rockets off Georgia’s coast toward sensitive barrier islands, Norins wrote.
The supreme court has scheduled an Aug. 23 hearing for the case.
“Invalidating this direct-democracy safety valve embedded in our state’s Constitution will strip, not just the residents of Camden County, but the people in all 159 Georgia counties of their ability to hold their county commissioners accountable more than once every four years,” the legal brief said. “While county commissioners are small in number, they wield tremendous power to legislatively affect the lives of their constituents.”
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Camden officials’ foray into commercial space exploration began in 2014 and five years later, the Federal Aviation Administration granted the spaceport operator’s license for up to 12 launches annually. The license is contingent upon the county closing on land held by Union Carbide. Each individual launch would require state and federal regulatory approval.
While the legal battles play out, county officials seek investors and attract businesses for a project that they say will be an economic driver for the region.
The Association County Commissioners of Georgia is siding with Camden officials, who are members of the lobbying organization. The organization says that the public initiative clause was never intended to be applied to land deals.
Camden argues that the state constitution forbids residents from repealing county resolutions. Instead, county lawyers say, the real estate agreement falls under the state’s home rule provision, which grants counties power to enact local laws.
In a related case from 2020, Glynn County successfully blocked two state Senate bills that called for a special election to abolish the county police department and hand over control to the sheriff.
If the state’s high court rules against the county, a recurring cycle of petitions could be unleashed against county and city governments, which would be contrary to the state constitution that sets the ground rules for government, the counties’ association attorneys wrote on May 16.
“Such an outcome would have a dramatic impact on ACCG’s 159 county members, from both an operational and cost standpoint: counties would have to provide funding for the staffing, equipment, and locations for holding this new category of countywide special elections.”
The county association and Camden officials are also citing a 1998 state case in which the Georgia Supreme Court ruled against a group of residents and business owners who were trying to stop south Georgia’s city of Claxton leaders from closing railroad crossings. They’re asking for justices handling the Camden case to follow suit in the Kemp v. city of Claxton by giving the constitutional county home rule the same weight as the statutory municipal home rule.
“The workability of the reasoning of Kemp is even more obvious in light of our system of government: if citizens are dissatisfied with actions taken by their local elected officials, they can (and often do) find their remedy by voting those officials out of office,” the county association’s legal argument says.
The Supreme Court case isn’t the only legal entanglement holding back the planned spaceport. The Southern Environmental Law Center, One Hundred Miles and The National Parks Conservation Association are suing the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia. In a lawsuit filed in May, the environmental groups say that the agency hasn’t adequately studied the potential environmental harm the approved small rockets could cause since earlier spaceport plans contemplated SpaceX-sized launches.
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