The board has been operating under an electoral map its own Democratic majority passed last year in a novel move to undo the state Legislature-passed district map that would have drawn Democratic Commissioner Jerica Richardson out of her district midway through her term.
Richardson has since launched her campaign for U.S. Congress in the 6th district, which is currently held by Republican U.S. Rep. Rich McCormick. A recent federal ruling sent Georgia’s congressional map back to the state Legislature to be redrawn, which lawmakers will do at the end of November.
Legal experts dispute whether Richardson would have to vacate her position on the County Commission immediately under the state map, as the county’s attorneys contend, or if she could stay in office through the end of her term.
During Monday’s hearing, Smith argued state law does not give the county the right to draw its own map, and allowing the county to do so “opens up a whole pandora’s box of what home rule can and cannot do.”
“Any authority for a county board of commissioners to undertake its own redistricting map must be derived from an explicit statutory or constitutional grant of authority,” Smith said. “The county did not have authority here.”
But county attorney Elizabeth Monyak argued the intent of the home rule provision in the state constitution was to give counties broad powers — except for a few exceptions, which she said don’t apply in this case.
Those exceptions in the constitution say counties cannot use home rule powers to affect “any elective county office” or “the composition, form, procedure for election.” But Monyak argued the county’s new map does not change the fundamental office or its duties, and the map does not constitute an election procedure.
“Redistricting can affect the officeholder, but it doesn’t affect the office, and the Webster’s Dictionary from that time has a separate definition for officeholder,” Monyak said. “If the framers and the people had wanted to broaden the exclusion to encompass matters that affect the candidate or the incumbent, they could have done so, but they didn’t. It was matters affecting ‘elective county office,’ not matters affecting public officials.”
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr also disagrees.
In a new amicus brief filed Monday morning, Carr argued that changing who can vote for the office’s position — namely who resides in that officeholder’s district — does affect the elective office and is therefore prohibited.
“Which and whether citizens are eligible to vote in an election is a fundamental procedure for election, and the county’s action violates this provision,” Carr wrote.
The arguments continued for nearly three hours, and Judge Harris complimented the attorneys’ extensive work.
“It may have seemed like it took forever to get to this point, but if you’re not a lawyer, you have no idea the complex issues here,” the judge said at the end of the hearing.
The board’s conflict over the map has been ongoing since the county voted to amend the map in fall 2022. Since then, several lawsuits have been filed and the conflict has only escalated.
After filing several iterations of the lawsuit, Republican Commissioner Keli Gambrill was removed as a plaintiff for lack of standing, in part because she used her position as a commissioner in her arguments.
Richardson, Gambrill, and Commissioner JoAnn Birrell all attended the hearing alongside several community members who have spoken at county meetings both for and against the county’s decision.
The conflict reached new heights when the new map went into effect in January: the board’s two Republicans, Gambrill and Birrell, refused to vote on any county business and were asked to step down from the dais. Since then, they have protested the county’s map at commission meetings by issuing statements of opposition prior to voting on any items.
Smith, attorney for the plaintiffs, was indicted on racketeering charges and 11 other counts related to former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia earlier this year, but that has not appeared to impact his position in the Cobb County lawsuit.