When Atlanta attorney Bruce Brown began representing a nonprofit organization suing Georgia election officials to force a return to paper ballot voting this fall, he waded into a case beset by squabbling plaintiffs who had already retained and discarded two law firms.
Brown, who’s had a solo practice in Atlanta since he left McKenna Long & Aldridge six years ago, picked up the case even though he won’t get paid unless his client, the Coalition for Good Governance, prevails.
“It was a clear opportunity to make a real impact with constitutional litigation,” Brown said on why he took the case. “There are a lot of intractable problems that this state and the country face. But having a system where people can vote securely should not be one of them.”
Brown has teamed up with Seattle attorney Robert McGuire and Atlanta attorney Cary Ichter of Ichter Davis, a longtime friend and law school classmate who recommended Brown to coalition executive director Marilyn Marks last April. Brown said he quickly was drawn in by the need to improve Georgia’s election system.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is running for governor on the Republican ticket, seemed “willing to roll the dice” on the security of Georgia’s elections, even as national security officials sounded alarms about the vulnerabilities of the United States’ election infrastructure to cybercriminals and foreign nations, Brown said. “ The plaintiffs do not believe that is a smart thing to do, in light of what’s at stake for this and every election,” Brown said.
In addition to the coalition, four Georgia voters represented by David Cross of Morrison & Foerster in Washington, D.C., are also plaintiffs in the case.
The paper ballot litigation is not the only case Brown has taken on this year that has national constitutional implications. On Monday, Brown sued Kemp over policies governing absentee ballot tallies. The lawsuit includes claims that policies put in place by the secretary of state are causing election officials across Georgia, especially in Gwinnett County, to invalidate too many absentee ballots.
Less than 24 hours after Brown sought a federal injunction to curtail those “unacceptably high” rejections, attorneys with the ACLU’s national Voting Rights Project in New York followed with a nearly identical federal suit in Atlanta. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law also entered the fray, sending a letter to Gwinnett election officials demanding that more of the rejected absentee ballots be counted.
All of them are now being watched closely by the national media, largely because of the tight and potentially historic race between Kemp and former state House minority leader Stacey Abrams, and because of repeated allegations that Kemp, who has resisted calls to resign while campaigning for office, has aggressively suppressed voter registration.
Kemp has repeatedly insisted that the state’s antiquated voting system is “accurate and safe” and recently took credit for the number of registered voters in Georgia hitting an all-time high of nearly 7 million people.
Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce has called the lawsuits “a publicity stunt” with “bogus” claims that constitute “a complete waste of our time and taxpayer dollars.”
The ballot controversy is not the only issue Brown has tackled. Last month, he waded into the contretemps President Donald Trump ignited last year over professional football players who kneeled during the national anthem. Brown began representing a Kennesaw State University cheerleader last month who lost her place on the squad after she kneeled at a KSU football game during the national anthem.
Brown and co-counsel Randy Mayer took an unusual approach, claiming that a powerful Republican state legislator had conspired with a Republican county sheriff to pressure KSU’s then-president to stop the protest in violation of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act. Both the legislator, who retired this year, and the sheriff are defendants.
“It’s rewarding to get behind cases which have a real possibility of having a positive public impact,” Brown said.
“The various cases are all very patriotic cases in the right sense of the word,” he explained. The right to protest and the right to vote “are consistent with all our values.”
Brown, 60, grew up in South Korea as the child of Presbyterian missionaries when the nation was still “wartorn and poverty stricken” in the aftermath of the Korean War.
The family returned to Georgia when Brown was 15. He graduated from Decatur High School and forged friendships he keeps to this day. He earned his undergraduate degree at Davidson College in North Carolina and his law degree at the University of Georgia.
Brown said he has “deep Decatur roots.” His sister, Mary Brown Bullock, served as the seventh president of Agnes Scott College from 1995-2006.
As a young lawyer, Brown clerked for Judge Edward A. Tamm on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger from 1985 to 1986 and was the second UGA law school graduate to clerk for a justice.
Brown said his clerkships were “fascinating.” He clerked for Burger during the justice’s final year on the bench. When he clerked for Tamm, that circuit court also included Judges Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Working on the same floor as all those judges was a remarkable experience,” he said.
Returning to Atlanta, Brown went to work for the firm then known as Long, Aldridge & Norman. He became proficient in First Amendment law and at one time represented The Daily Report.
As a partner at Long Aldridge, Brown and partner Todd Silliman began representing the state of Georgia as special assistant attorneys general in a series of lawsuits that became known as “the water wars.” Over the course of more than a decade, Brown and Silliman worked for three governors defending Georgia water rights against claims by Alabama and Florida.
Brown opened his own solo practice in 2012. “Twenty-six years was about enough at one job,” he said. “It was time for a change.”
In 2014, Judge Timothy Batten of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia appointed Brown as a special master in multidistrict litigation over whether Delta Air Lines and rival AirTran, which eventually was acquired by Southwest Airlines, violated federal antitrust laws when they implemented baggage fees in 2008.
Brown eventually recommended that Delta pay $1.8 million in sanctions for the airline’s repeated failures to turn over relevant evidence to customers who had sued. While Brown found no willful misconduct by Delta, his report to Batten characterized the airline’s handling of discovery as rife with “colossal blunders” that reflected “ineptitude and disarray.”