Georgia Supreme Court hears coastal spaceport case with local public ballot initiatives at stake

By: - October 7, 2022 1:00 am

Camden County residents and officials will now await the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision on the power of a petition that led to an election referendum that stopped rocket-launching plans off the coast of Georgia. Camden commissioners’ attorney Pearson Cunningham argued on Thursday that the referendum should be declared invalid. Screenshot of October 6 Supreme Court proceedings

On Thursday, Camden County argued in front of the Georgia Supreme Court that a local probate judge shouldn’t have ordered a referendum election allowing residents to nix plans for a coastal spaceport.

For most of the hour-long hearing, justices questioned attorneys for the probate court judge, county, and the citizens behind the initial lawsuit opposing the $11 million project to launch rockets off Georgia’s coast.

The justices’ decision could reverberate throughout the state as residents took advantage of a rarely used clause in Georgia’s Constitution that gives them the power to rein in what they say is an overzealous county government.

On Thursday, arguments focused on Georgia’s home rule discretion, which grants counties the right to make real estate agreements that do not conflict with state law.  

Camden attorney Pearson Cunningham asked the justices to dismiss the petition that led to the March election in which residents rejected Union Carbide’s agreement to sell 4,000 acres across from Little Cumberland Island to the county.

“If the constitution’s county home rule provision does not provide for this type of referendum election, then it’s the county’s position that (Probate Court Judge Robert Sweatt Jr.) was without jurisdiction to order the referendum in the first place,” Cunningham said.

During a series of exchanges, justices questioned why the county wanted the Supreme Court to prevent a judge from performing a duty defined by law.

“How can the probate judge not have jurisdiction to consider the petition that the constitutional home rule provision says that’s the job of the probate judge?” Justice Carla Wong McMillian asked.

Cunningham said the probate judge is responsible for considering the petition, conducting the election, and certifying it to the secretary of state. Probate judges, however, have historically served as county elections officers, not as judges, he said.

“I think what we’re saying is that it is not clear that the probate judge is sitting as the probate court judge of Camden County when he’s considering that petition,” Cunningham said. “We’re asking, is the probate judge wearing a judicial cap or is he wearing the historical election officer’s cap?”

A referendum required the signatures of at least 10% of Camden County’s registered voters to be verified by the court. Opponents gathered more than 3,500 petition signatures calling for a special election.

Spaceport opponents maintain that rockets that would be launched from the spaceport could explode, raining debris onto federally protected Cumberland Island National Seashore and 40 private homes located at Little Cumberland Island.

The overwhelming opposition from voters has also led to more legal bills for county taxpayers after Union Carbide informed Camden commissioners that the company is no longer contractually bound to sell the property because the election invalidated their agreement.

In Georgia, lawmakers have broad authority to determine the powers of county governments, and legal disputes frequently arise over whether the state should intervene in matters such as building design standards. 

In a court filing supporting Camden’s position, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia suggests letting voters decide local land deals could lead to recurrent and costly challenges in all of the state’s 159 counties.

The University of Georgia First Amendment Clinic, however, has criticized Camden County for interfering with residents’ protected speech rights by trying to block a spaceport project after many residents felt ignored as county commissioners pursued their quest, first launched in 2014.

During Thursday’s hearing, the judicial panel asked the attorney representing the group of Camden residents if a similar referendum could also be imposed on other governing bodies, such as hospitals or airport authorities, as well as the potential for endless challenges for city governments that do not currently come under this same law that applies to counties. 

“It would have been a completely different process and they’ve been trying to repeal a local act, but this was solely limited to resolutions pertaining to the purchase ” of the Union Carbide property, attorney Phillip Thompson said.

“Even the county has admitted with respect to amendments of local acts, it’s not like this is an issue that comes up that often,” he added.

Justice Charles Bethel responded: “I think the answer to the question is that there’s somebody who’s going to be unhappy with their city council and they’re going to try one of these and somebody’s going to fight to get it up here in front of us to square it up,” Bethel said.

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.

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