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Crawford: The real winners in state's legal battles attorneys
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In the courtroom, as on the playing field, the rules of competition are the same: You win some, you lose some.

We got a reminder of that last week when the attorneys who represent the state of Georgia got slapped down by a federal judge in Atlanta, then received a lot of loving just a day later from another group of federal judges in the same city.

The legal activities began when U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Thrash presided over a lawsuit that had been filed early in June by the ACLU and other civil rights groups challenging the state's new immigration control law. That law was scheduled to take effect on July 1.

Gov. Nathan Deal and the legislative sponsors of the immigration law had assured everyone that the new statute was carefully written so that it would survive any objections that might be raised in court.

"We believe that the provisions of the bill will be vindicated when put to scrutiny in the court system," said Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, the young attorney who went through at least 16 drafts of the legislation before it achieved final passage.

Ramsey may have been a little premature in that prediction. Thrash ruled in favor of the groups questioning the constitutionality of the law and threw out major provisions that authorized police to detain and question suspects about their immigration status and made it a crime to knowingly harbor or transport an illegal immigrant.

"Seventy years ago the United States Supreme Court declared that the federal government had the exclusive right to legislate the general field of foreign affairs, including power over immigration, naturalization and deportation," Thrash wrote. "That remains the law of the land."

While the governor was displeased with the judge's ruling, the attorneys who challenged the immigration law were happy with the result.

"There should be no doubt in the minds of Georgia citizens that this was, from the beginning, a bad law that could never pass constitutional muster," said Keegan Federal, a former judge who was part of the legal team representing the immigrant community.

It was a losing start to the week for the state's lawyers, but events would soon take another direction for them.

On the day after the Thrash decision, a panel of judges from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a decision that supported Georgia in its lengthy water dispute with Alabama and Florida, a legal battle that has been going on for nearly two decades.

The appellate court judges reversed a decision that would have cut off most of Metro Atlanta's access to the water in Lake Lanier by 2012. Federal Judge Paul Magnuson ruled two years ago that Congress had supposedly not authorized the use of Lanier as a water source for Atlanta, a decision that threatened the future of the state's most populous region.

Magnuson was wrong, the appeals court said. The congressional act passed in 1946 to develop the Lanier reservoir "clearly indicates Congress' intent to include water supply as an authorized purpose," the judges ruled. They instructed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make its final determination within the next year on how the water in Lanier will be allocated.

This ruling was seen by the state's lawyers and elected officials as a major victory.

"It is clear that this is a great day for Georgia," Attorney General Sam Olens said.

Of course, in our American legal system, it's never over until it's over. The states' attorneys for Alabama and Florida will appeal the latest decision in the water wars to the full Circuit Court of Appeals in the hope that a different set of judges will rule in their favor.

You can also rest assured that both the water litigation and the immigration lawsuit will wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court at some future point, and no one can predict with any certainty what will happen then.

Who will be the ultimate winners? I say it will be the attorneys. For the water litigation alone, Georgia has been billed for more than $8.5 million in fees and expenses by the private lawyers retained to help argue the state's case. For that kind of money, I wouldn't even care if the judge ruled against me.

Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.

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