Top 10 stories that shaped 2023: Trump’s mug, Vogtle’s sticker shock and raging culture wars

Former President Donald Trump surrendered at the Fulton County Jail in August and had his mugshot taken. It’s the only mugshot of the former president and also the only booking photo made of any U.S. president. Photo from the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office

The jailhouse booking of a former president. The death of the only Georgian to ever serve as first lady. The first kilowatts of energy cranked out of the beleaguered Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion project. 

These and other stories left a mark on the world of Georgia politics this year, whether in jaw-dropping fashion or through the void left behind. Others are notable simply because they represent the smaller, incremental twists that simply moved a long-running story on to a new chapter. 

So before we move on to 2024, let’s take a look back at the stories that made 2023 the year it was. 

Trump is indicted in Fulton County election interference case

Georgia found itself back at the center of national politics in August when a grand jury indicted former President Donald Trump and 18 of his allies on racketeering and conspiracy charges for interfering in the 2020 election. 

The grand jury indictments and the subsequent circus-like parade of surrenders at the Fulton County Jail on Rice Street also yielded the only mugshot of the former president, which is also the only booking photo made of any U.S. president. 

Rudy Giuliani is surrounded by media outside the Fulton County jail as he surrendered Aug. 23, 2023 on criminal charges. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Four of Trump’s co-defendants have since accepted plea deals and agreed to testify at trial. 

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and Trump’s legal team remain at odds as the lead prosecutor seeks to have Trump and the 14 remaining co-defendants stand trial together in this coming August. 

Trump, the GOP’s frontrunner for the 2024 presidential nomination, along with ex-Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and Mark Meadows, former White House chief of staff, are accused of making baseless claims of massive voting fraud while orchestrating a multi-state plot to overturn the 2020 presidential election. 

Trump’s attorney Steve Sadow contends that the potential timing of an August trial – several months before the Nov. 5 election – would amount to the worst example of election interference in the nation’s history.

Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee has indicated he would prefer to divide the defendants into smaller groups because of the logistical challenges of a trial that prosecutors predict will involve 150 witnesses taking the stand over the course of four months.

Prosecutors have struck plea deals with four codefendants, including attorneys Jenna Ellis, Kenneth Chesebro, and Sidney Powell and Atlanta bail bondsman Scott Hall. A number of legal and political experts predict that the Fulton prosecutors will continue to negotiate plea agreements with many of the remaining co-defendants, and that their testimony will be used to strengthen the cases against Trump and his top allies.

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter dies

Admirers of former President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter started the year worried about the former president’s health after it was announced in February that he had entered hospice care at his home in Plains.

A tribute to Rosalynn Carter. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

But by the end of the year, they were grieving the loss of Rosalynn Carter, who died in November at the age of 96. She was diagnosed with dementia in May. 

Rosalynn Carter was remembered as her husband’s closest adviser – Jimmy Carter called her “an equal partner in everything I ever accomplished” – as well as celebrated for own rich legacy championing mental health, caregiving and women’s rights.

The former first lady was honored with a multi-day remembrance tour that included a tribute ceremony in Atlanta that was attended by four living former first ladies and sitting first lady Jill Biden, as well as President Joe Biden and former president Bill Clinton.

Jimmy Carter attended the tribute ceremony and the funeral services held at Maranatha Baptist Church. It was the first time he had been seen in public since September when the couple made a surprise appearance at the Plains Peanut Festival. They had been married for 77 years.

Well-wishers stood watch all along the route of her motorcade to pay their respects.

Six-week abortion ban survives first post-Dobbs legal test

Georgia’s controversial six-week abortion ban survived its first legal test in the wake of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. 

A group of health care providers and abortion rights advocates filed a new lawsuit in state court in July 2022 after Georgia’s law was allowed to take effect last summer after the Dobbs decision, ending an earlier challenge in federal court.

They argued that Georgia’s 2019 law was invalid because it was passed when Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land and insisted that lawmakers should be required to pass a new law in today’s climate.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert C. I. McBurney agreed, ruling the restrictions “plainly unconstitutional” when they were created. But the Georgia Supreme Court didn’t buy that, rejecting that argument with a 6-1 decision in October. 

But other parts of the same case are still pending in the lower court. The lawsuit also argues that Georgia’s strict abortion restrictions violate the state constitution’s rights to privacy and equal protection. 

Federal ruling upends Georgia’s political maps 

A federal judge’s ruling in October struck down Georgia’s political maps and pulled lawmakers back to Atlanta for a quick special session that wrapped up in early December.

District Court Judge Steve C. Jones threw out the congressional and legislative maps drawn in 2021 ruling that they diluted the voting power of Black Georgians.

Republican Sens. Steeve Gooch, John Kennedy, Bill Cowsert and Bo Hatchett vote to approve new Congressional maps this year. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Jones concluded that the GOP-drawn maps violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bars practices and procedures that discriminate on the basis of race and had just survived a test before the U.S. Supreme Court this year.

Lawmakers passed new maps with party-line votes that Republicans say responds to the judge’s call to create new majority Black districts. But Democrats argued their GOP colleagues failed to address the judge’s concerns and only played a “shell game” with non-white voters.

The ruling had been expected to lead to Democratic gains since Black Georgians have historically backed Democrats at high rates. But the maps that emerged from this year’s special session would give up some GOP-controlled ground in the state House but otherwise largely maintain the current partisan balance.

A post-session hearing was held last week and Jones dampened hopes of the challengers who had argued the judge’s initial ruling applied to “minority opportunity” districts that factored in coalitions of Black, Hispanic and Asian voters, as opposed to counting only the Black population. 

Jones said in court that he would narrowly focus on protecting the rights of Black voters. He also said he would render a decision “very quickly.”

Kemp’s limited Medicaid program launches at last but just 2,300 enroll

Four years after first being announced, the governor’s plan to slightly expand Medicaid eligibility for low-income adults who satisfy certain activity requirements was launched in July. 

But the program has been off to a slow start. As of mid-December, 2,344 people had enrolled in Georgia Pathways to Coverage.

In Georgia, a low-income adult must complete 80 hours of work or other activities every month to qualify and then keep their health care coverage under the new program. 

The program’s launch was delayed by the Biden administration, which pushed back on the work requirement, but Georgia officials were able to proceed after successfully suing in federal court. 

The rollout is now happening as all states check the eligibility of everyone currently covered by Medicaid as part of the end of a pandemic-era protection. Georgia has attracted national attention for having the third highest number of children who have lost coverage during the process.

A new Vogtle unit finally goes online, and it will cost Georgia Power ratepayers

Georgia Power ratepayers will be responsible for a $7.6 billion bill for the construction of two nuclear reactors built at Plant Vogtle located southeast of Augusta. 

The financial agreement for the snakebit nuclear project was approved Dec. 19 in an unanimous vote by the Georgia Public Service Commission that calls for the utility company to cover at least $2.6 billion of an expected $10 billion in construction and capital costs spent on the Vogtle project. 

Vehicle leaving Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion site in 2019 on the road to nowhere. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Vogtle has remained a major source of contention and frustration as the costs ballooned to more than double the price initially forecast for a project that’s taking 14 years to complete. 

The two Vogtle expansion units are the first nuclear reactors to be built in the U.S. in more than 30 years, and account for the latest in a series of rate increases Georgia Power customers will continue to pay in the coming months.

Georgia Power and other Vogtle promoters tout the benefits of nuclear power as a provider of a reliable and zero-carbon energy supply for the next 60 to 80 years. A number of utility analysts and clean energy and consumer advocates have long argued that the project’s benefits will not outweigh the ballooning costs customers will be stuck with in the long haul.

The average Georgia Power homeowner has been paying an extra $5 per month since Unit 3  began operating this summer and will begin paying an additional $9 monthly once Unit 4 comes online. Georgia Power officials predict that the final reactor will be fully operational within the first several months of 2024.

Construction on Vogtle has been severely hampered by technical issues, worker shortages, a strike, and the bankruptcy of its original contractor Westinghouse Electric Co. in 2017.

2023 was a mixed year for access to medical cannabis

Patients with serious health maladies celebrated this year when state-approved medical cannabis dispensaries began opening their doors, ending years of suffering without medicine or obtaining it outside the letter of the law. 

Georgia law allows people with certain diagnoses to sign up for a state-issue card allowing them to possess low THC oil.

But some patients and caregivers initially reported problems getting on the list, and a plan to become the first state to allow pharmacies to dispense medical cannabis products appears scuttled after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency warned Georgia pharmacies against breaking federal laws by dispensing THC.

Georgia lawmakers ban gender-affirming care for minors

Transgender children and families lost their right to get hormone therapy in Georgia this year after the Legislature banned the practice on party lines.

Doctors typically recommend a course of treatment for minors experiencing gender dysphoria that can include social transitioning, as in changing one’s name or pronouns or hormone treatment, in which patients take testosterone or estrogen to match their gender identity.

The bill also outlaws sex reassignment surgery, which advocates say is not performed on minors.

A judge temporarily blocked the law as a lawsuit moves forward, but reversed that decision after the 11th Circuit Court issued a contradictory ruling in Alabama. 

New legislative leaders under the Gold Dome, including a glass-ceiling breaker 

When state lawmakers kicked off this year’s legislative session in January, the gavel was in the hands of new leaders in both chambers.

The chamber also gave a standing ovation to Speaker Pro-Tempore Jan Jones, who became speaker after Ralston’s death – making her the first woman speaker in Georgia. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

In the House, some history was also being made. Milton Republican state Rep. Jan Jones, who is the speaker pro tem, greeted lawmakers on their first day as the first woman to ever serve as speaker in Georgia. She had become speaker after the unexpected death of Speaker David Ralston in late 2022.

Then House Majority Leader Jon Burns would go on to become the speaker, and as he was settling in, newly elected Lt. Gov. Burt Jones was finding his own groove presiding over the state Senate across the state Capitol building.

To add another wrinkle: As new legislative leaders were taking the helm, a whopping 53 new lawmakers were also thrown into the mix of an increasingly diverse General Assembly. 

This January promises to bring more seasoned top leaders and lawmakers, even if just slightly so. 

Atlanta public safety training center becomes political wedge

Proponents say the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Center will allow police to better serve their community. Opponents deride the project as “Cop City” and say it will further militarize police and make them more effective at killing minorities. 

State leadership is strongly on the pro-side, which could manifest during the 2024 session as money for the endeavor or new laws aimed at violent demonstrations. Dozens of activists now face racketeering charges in relation to their opposition, and a plan to put the center to a citywide vote is in legal limbo as the sides argue over the validity of petition signatures.

The issue already landed before lawmakers during the brief special legislative session held so Georgia’s political maps could be redrawn. GOP leaders pushed a nonbinding resolution expressing support, forcing lawmakers to take a position on the controversial project. In the House, it passed 144-5; in the Senate, the vote was 48 to 5. 

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