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Georgia lawmakers pass rules aimed at shielding their speech after Trump investigation

Republicans say the rule clarifies the concept of legislative privilege. Here's what we know.

ATLANTA — Georgia legislators approved rules on Wednesday that asserts they are protected from being compelled to testify in court proceedings. 

The change come months after some of them were brought before a special grand jury investigating alleged attempts by former President Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election. 

Republicans told 11Alive the change was not motivated by the Trump probe. Georgia Democrats, however, expressed concerns ahead of Wednesday's votes.

The votes in the Georgia House of Representatives and the state Senate were mostly party-line votes, with nearly all Republicans supporting the measures while nearly all Democrats opposed. 

In an interview with 11Alive, House Majority Leader Chuck Efstration (R-Dacula) said the rules were passed in an effort to clarify the general assembly's position on legislative privilege, a concept in the state and federal constitutions that legislators shouldn't be questioned for activities related to lawmaking.

"Legislative privilege is something that has existed for over 100 years," he said. "All this does is reflect what legislators already have."

"It's not new. It's already in existence. It should not have any impact on communication that has already taken place or testimony about communication that has already taken place," he added.

During Wednesday's Senate session, Senate Democratic Whip Harold Jones of Augusta spoke out against several rule changes, including the legislative privilege provision. 

Jones cited "numerous" pieces of ongoing litigation that could be affected by the legislative privilege change, including state and federal investigations into the 2020 election.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney ruled in July 2022 that Georgia lawmakers appearing before the Fulton County Special Purpose Grand Jury had broad immunity but they could be asked about their conversations with people outside of the legislature.

Wednesday's rule changes state that conversations between lawmakers and non-legislators concerning lawmaking would be covered by legislative privilege. 

“So the question becomes, will this impact that? The answer may be no, but that answer really has not been given,” Jones said. “So if you want to waive (the privilege), when you change this language, does that impact the members’ ability to be able to testify in any of these kinds of cases?”

Efstration told 11Alive the Fulton County Special Purpose Grand Jury's work did not influence the rule changes.

"That was not my motivation in proposing these rules. This was a recommendation made by legislative counsel," he said. "The rule itself doesn't do anything to enhance or detract from the constitutional legislative privilege."

The rules passed the House by a vote of 94-77. Identical language passed the Senate, 31-21. The changes are only part of legislative rules. It's unclear if it would hold up in court.

During Wednesday's session, Sen. David Lucas (D-Macon) asked if Republicans planned on consulting them about the changes, suggesting Democrats were left out of the process. Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega) told the chamber that Democratic leaders were consulted twice about the changes.

Efstration told 11Alive that House Democrats were provided with a copy of the rules "well in advance" of the vote.

Other changes in the rules include the creation of a standing committee on children and families in the state Senate and the elimination of the Senate’s Special Judiciary Committee.

The new rules will govern both chambers for the next two years.

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