Michael Bowers, Balch & Bingham, Atlanta. (Photo: John Disney/ALM) Michael Bowers, Balch & Bingham, Atlanta. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

The debate over a pending referendum that will slice off nearly half of Stockbridge to help create a wealthier—and whiter—city of Eagle’s Landing generated plenty of heat earlier this year at the Capitol, where the General Assembly green-lighted the proposal and Gov. Nathan Deal signed it into law.

It’s also generated litigation, and a federal lawsuit claims the move was motivated largely by racism. The legislation was introduced a few months after Stockbridge’s first black mayor and city council members were elected in November 2017. Eagle’s Landing proponents have made clear they seek a city with a more affluent “demographic” than that of Stockbridge.

Stockbridge has argued that, in addition to taking much of its tax base, Eagle’s Landing will jettison any responsibility for more than $17 million in bonds Stockbridge borrowed more than a decade ago, torpedoing the city’s credit rating.    

But none of those issues were under discussion Tuesday at the Georgia Supreme Court, where lawyers for the city tried to convince the justices that the two legislative acts enabling the city’s creation violate the Georgia Constitution.

Act 548, “An Act to Incorporate the City of Eagle’s Landing,” provides a ballot referendum for qualified voters within the proposed city limits. Stockbridge voters outside of the new city’s proposed boundaries are not permitted to vote on the issue, slated to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.  

Act 559, “An Act to Amend an Act to Provide a New Charter for the City of Stockbridge,” provides for the “de-annexation” of the portions of Stockbridge targeted for takeover by Eagle’s Landing, effective Jan. 1, provided that the referendum passes.  

In May, Stockbridge filed a petition for declaratory judgment against Henry County’s elections director and county commission, arguing the acts violated the state Constitution’s prohibition of legislation that “refers to more than one subject matter or contains matter different from what is expressed in the title thereof,” a provision known as the “two-subject rule.”

The acts also violated the Constitution by containing subject matters not reflected in their titles, which the high court has deemed “covert and surprise legislation.”

Stockbridge also sought an injunction halting the referendum, but Henry County Superior Court Judge Arch McGarity denied that, along with the motion for declaratory judgement.

At the high court, Balch & Bingham partner Mike Bowers and Bob Wilson of Decatur’s Wilson Morton & Downs argued Stockbridge’s appeal, with Bowers, a former state attorney general, arguing that both acts are unconstitutional.

Act 548 is void, he said, because at the same time it created the city of Eagle’s Landing, it amended the charter of Stockbridge, although it never mentions Stockbridge.

The act also provides for the election of a mayor and city council immediately upon certification of the referendum, empowering them to take “binding actions” on behalf of the city, even though it will not exist until Jan. 1, 2019, if approved by voters.

Justice Michael Boggs, whose background includes two terms as a representative, was quick to challenge Bowers’ assertion that Act 548’s provisions must be met before 559’s de-annexation provisions come into effect, although by its passage the annexed parcels have already been de-annexed.

Justice Nels Peterson asked whether constitutional concerns would have been met, had the legislation been packaged so that the de-annexation and the cities’ charters were separate.

There is “no question” the legislation could have been crafted to pass constitutional muster, Bowers said.

“Why can’t we analyze them together,” asked Peterson, given that they “traveled together” through the legislative process.

“Because the Constitution says ‘no bill shall pass which refers to more than one subject matter,’” Bowers replied.

Timothy Tanner, Coleman Talley, Valdosta. (Photo: John Disney/ALM) Timothy Tanner of Coleman Talley (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

Rising on behalf of the Henry County defendants, Timothy Tanner of Valdosta’s Coleman Talley said that the constitutional provisions at issue “were designed to prevent cover legislation, things passed in the dark of night.”

Tanner argued that the issue of when each act became effective was of no importance, since the Legislature was within its authority to create and amend city charters and pass legislation annexing or de-annexing land.

“It’s not clear to me why you couldn’t have one bill that creates a city and transfers land from another city,” Peterson said.

Boggs wondered whether it may be time to revisit Supreme Court precedent on whether legislation affecting two municipal charters is unconstitutional.