By Rich McKay
ATLANTA (Reuters) – Two Georgia judges recused themselves Tuesday before a hearing on Governor Brian Kemp’s lawsuit seeking to stop Atlanta’s mayor from enforcing a requirement that people in the state’s largest city wear masks in public.
First, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly Ellerbe recused herself about an hour before the hearing, but did not provide a reason in a one-page court filing except to describe it as a “voluntary recusal.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Ellerbe told court officials she had discussed the case with another judge prior to the hearing.
The second Fulton County Superior Court Judge, Shawn Ellen LaGrua, was then appointed, but also quickly recused herself.
In a two-page court filing, she wrote that she had once worked for Governor Kemp when he was Georgia’s secretary of state and did not want “any appearance of impropriety or bias.”
A spokesman for the court said a statement was expected later in the day. There was no immediate comment from the governor’s office or the office of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Earlier this month, Kemp barred local leaders from requiring people to wear masks to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Even so, several Georgia cities, including Democratic-led Atlanta, Savannah and Athens, have defied the governor’s order and kept local mandates in place.
The governor’s office filed a lawsuit on Thursday against Bottoms and the Atlanta city council, arguing that local officials lack the legal authority to override Kemp’s orders.
“Kemp must be allowed, as the chief executive of this state, to manage a public health emergency without Mayor Bottoms issuing void and unenforceable orders which only serve to confuse the public,” the 16-page complaint reads.
Tuesday’s hearing was on an emergency motion by the governor’s office to have the court lift Atlanta’s mask requirement while the lawsuit works its way through the court system.
Kemp has not filed lawsuits against the other cities with mask orders.
Americans are divided over the use of masks even as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continues to rise in many parts of the country, including Georgia. The divide is largely along political lines, with conservatives more likely than liberals to call the rules a violation of their constitutional rights.
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Franklin Paul, Dan Grebler and Jonathan Oatis)