Former DeKalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton arrived at the county courthouse Tuesday for a hearing on the constitutionality of the DeKalb Board of Ethics. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

Legality of DeKalb Board of Ethics questioned in court

Courtroom arguments Tuesday over the legality of the DeKalb County Board of Ethics came down to whether its power comes directly from the people, or from the leaders they elect.

Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson is considering whether the Ethics Board is unconstitutional because most of its members were appointed by private organizations, including the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce and local universities.

Former DeKalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton’s lawsuit says only elected officials can appoint board members. Her lawsuit relies on a 1979 Georgia Supreme Court decision that said elected officials can’t delegate their appointment power to non-government groups.

“Even the people must abide by the Constitution, and the Constitution says all of its government is run by elected officials,” said Dwight Thomas, an attorney for Sutton. “You can’t run government by private organizations.”

But Darren Summerville, an attorney for the Ethics Board, said the people expressed their wishes when 92 percent of voters approved changes to the board during a referendum in November 2015. Outside appointments of board members were intended to make it independent from the officials it investigates.

“The Georgia Constitution gives the public a voice in deciding who governs them, and DeKalb voters voted overwhelming in favor of this selection process,” Summerville said.

Jackson didn’t rule on the case Tuesday. She could decide the case in the coming weeks.

Sutton sued soon after voters approved the overhaul of the Ethics Board. A judge granted a stay in the ethics cases against Sutton while her lawsuit is pending.

Three residents have accused Sutton of accepting gifts from a YMCA, abusing her county purchasing card, using government employees at a political fundraising event and other alleged violations. She attended Tuesday’s hearing but declined to comment. She has denied wrongdoing.

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Channel 2's Richard Belcher says the legal challenge comes from a former elected official facing ethics charges.

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