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State attorney general confident water war nearing end

Olens says tri-state battle could be resolved within a year

POSTED: January 18, 2012 11:31 p.m.
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Sam Olens

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Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens has expressed confidence that a struggle over water between Alabama, Georgia and Florida could be resolved in a year.

Officials from both Alabama and Florida have until mid-February to file a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the court to consider hearing the war over water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin.

A panel of judges from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a previous ruling in the decadeslong power struggle last summer that gave Georgia access to Lake Lanier as a source of drinking water.

And Olens said Wednesday he doesn't think the country's highest court will be willing to review the decision.

"There's really no national issue, federal issue, for the Supreme Court to take up," Olens said.

Olens said the 11th Circuit decision puts Georgia on a "level playing field" in negotiations with its two neighbors over the control of water flowing through the basin. And that's how Olens said he thinks the feud over water will end: through negotiation. Olens said he doesn't expect the case to be in court for much longer.

"There is no reason, I would argue, that that 20-plus years of litigation shouldn't be resolved in the next year," Olens said. "Because once we finish with the Supreme Court cert petition, it puts the three governors in a great position to sit down and resolve this issue."

Olens spoke to members of the local bar Wednesday about a number of issues he's faced in his first year in office, including his defense of Georgia's new immigration law.

He didn't comment in favor of or against the bill legislators passed last year, citing that any comments he made could be used as "Exhibit A" in a current lawsuit against the state on the bill.

Olens told local lawyers that when lawmakers were drafting the bill, his office offered suggestions that would make the bill "stronger from a legal perspective." And he said "many" of his suggestions were incorporated in the final version of House Bill 87.

Olens called it "interesting" that the U.S. Department of Justice never became a party in the lawsuit against Georgia's immigration law, as it did in other states, such as Arizona and Alabama, that enacted similar laws.

"I'd like to think that our bill is far stronger and that's why the Justice Department chose the other states to sue," Olens said.

A federal judge in Atlanta struck down two provisions of the bill. The state has appealed, and on March 1, the appeals court will hear arguments on the bill.

"I knew that when the governor signed the bill, I'd have a lawsuit," Olens said. "What I didn't know was that the governor and I would be defendants in that lawsuit."

Olens also made comments on a decision to join 26 other states and the National Federation of Independent Business in a suit against the federal government on requirements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

In late March, the groups have more than five hours to argue before the Supreme Court that the mandates for individuals in the law are unconstitutional, and the justices are expected to make a decision on the case in June.

Local attorney Wyc Orr asked Olens what interest Georgia had in the suit and whether the state's interest was driven by health care policy or politics.

Olens said the state's opposition was "a legal discussion on the commerce clause."

"Unlike Medicare, Social Security, you're paying a fee for not buying a product, and I'm one of those folks that thinks that when you buy a product you're supposed to get something in return and that you can't force Americans to enter the stream of commerce," Olens said. "So I think the individual mandate is blatantly unconstitutional."

 



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