Political Insider

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Why Georgia’s protracted water rights battle just got a little cheaper


The latest chapter of Georgia’s long-running water rights battle against Florida has cost the state’s taxpayers nearly $50 million -- a price tag that will undoubtedly rise after the Supreme Court punted the case earlier this summer. But legal bills for the two states are likely to mount a little slower thanks to a decision quietly made by the justices late last week. 

They announced in a brief order Thursday that they discharged Ralph Lancaster, the no-nonsense Maine attorney who presided over Florida’s legal challenge on the court’s behalf since 2014. Justices opted to replace him with Paul Kelly, a federal judge from New Mexico, for a second round of proceedings that is expected to begin in the months ahead. 

The work of Kelly and his law clerks is expected to come at a far cheaper price for the two states, which were required to split Lancaster’s legal fees because he worked at a private firm. Between Lancaster’s appointment in November 2014 and February 2017, when he issued his recommendations to the court, the states split more than $481,000 in fees, according to filings on the Supreme Court’s website. 

Kelly isn’t expected to charge similar fees for his work since he receives a federal salary as a senior judge on the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Despite that, Georgia and Florida won’t be able to close their wallets completely. 

They’ll still have to set aside money for their own lawyers. In addition to state barristers, both also employ Washington firms to shoulder some of the work on the water wars. And they could also spend substantially more on expert witnesses, according to legal observers interviewed by the AJC, should Kelly decide to take new evidence in the case. 

In its 5-4 decision in June, the court drew up a list of five questions it wanted the so-called special master to focus on as he heard the next round of the case. That included whether Florida could prove that Georgia had withdrawn too much water from the Flint River and whether capping the Peach State’s consumption could lead to substantial additional water flowing to Florida’s Apalachicola Bay without decimating Georgia’s economy. 

Kelly in the weeks ahead is expected to lay out a preliminary schedule and conditions for the case moving forward. The court last week granted him authority to summon witnesses, issue subpoenas and take new evidence and “such as he may deem it necessary to call for.” 

Read more: 

Georgia is nowhere near last battle in tri-state water wars

Supreme Court punts on Florida-Georgia water fight

Read the Georgia-Florida water war Supreme Court decision

What is the Georgia-Florida water war?

Georgia gov regrets near-miss on water wars deal as court readies decision


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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.