Judge advances the legal challenge to Cobb’s electoral map in mixed ruling

District One Commissioner Keli Gambrill is seen at a Cobb County Board of Commissioners meeting in Marietta on Tuesday, September 27, 2022.   (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

District One Commissioner Keli Gambrill is seen at a Cobb County Board of Commissioners meeting in Marietta on Tuesday, September 27, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

A Cobb County Superior Court judge has ruled that a lawsuit challenging the county’s self-drawn electoral map for the commission can move forward — albeit without Keli Gambrill, the GOP commissioner who filed the case.

Gambrill filed two lawsuits in her capacity as a resident, not as a commissioner: a complaint for declaratory relief seeking a ruling on the constitutionality of the county-passed map, and a writ of mandamus asking the court to compel the county to reinstate the state-approved map and remove Commissioner Jerica Richardson from office because, under that map, she no longer lives in District 2.

Judge Ann Harris issued a ruling Wednesday that allowed the complaint to advance, denying Cobb County’s motion to dismiss. Gambrill was removed from the case for lack of standing, in part because she used her position as a commissioner in her arguments.

“Several of (Gambrill’s) claims arise from her professional capacity and are not relevant in this suit,” Harris wrote.

Gambrill did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

The other plaintiffs, David and Catherine Floam who were added to the lawsuit later, are Cobb County residents who live in the disputed area. Harris determined they do have grounds to sue the county.

“For certain Cobb voters, the Resolution changed their district after they voted in another district,” Harris wrote. “...If the resolution is determined to be unconstitutional, as urged by Plaintiffs, then the Floams have identified a harm that is concrete, actual and particular to them.”

Cobb County has been operating in uncertainty under its electoral map passed by the Democratic majority in a novel legal gambit. The county-passed map replaced the map passed by a majority-Republican state Legislature that would have drawn Richardson out of her district midway through her term, and potentially left the board in a 2-2 split that would have dismantled the Democratic majority that took over in 2020.

The county attorney has argued that commissioners passing their own map was permissible under the home rule provision of the state constitution. Attorney General Chris Carr issued a brief in the lawsuit, arguing that the county’s action is unconstitutional.

Legal experts dispute whether Richardson would have been forced to vacate her position immediately, or if she would have been forced out of the role after an election. Still, the county’s unprecedented move created a constitutional question of whether counties have the authority to draw their own electoral maps, which Harris has allowed to advance to arguments in a November hearing.

The judge dismissed the writ of mandamus lawsuit because it was not the proper legal remedy in the case: it was not brought against a specific elected official, and it is unnecessary because the first lawsuit seeks to resolve the issue, Harris ruled.

The judge also pointed out that neither party has claimed a breach of procedure by the county, saying the county’s map is legal until a court rules otherwise.

Harris also seemed to rebuke Gambrill’s demand for the county to “ensure that only those commissioners who are validly, legally (and) constitutionally permitted” to serve on the board do so, which took direct aim at Richardson’s position on the board. The judge wrote that “all currently seated commissioners were elected based upon the district maps” that were valid at the time.

“The county looks forward to presenting the merits of this case in court,” Cobb County Attorney Bill Rowling said through a spokesman.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Ray Smith III, was indicted this week on racketeering charges and 11 other counts related to former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia. Smith did not respond to requests for comment.