A Gwinnett judge dealt a blow Wednesday to Commissioner Tommy Hunter’s attempts to invalidate the county ethics board that recommended his public reprimand.
But the blow is not yet a fatal one.
Hunter’s attorney, Dwight Thomas, said he planned to appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court the ruling from Judge Melodie Snell Conner, which dismissed the commissioner’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the ethics board.
“They call them activist judges for a reason,” Seth Weathers, Hunter’s consultant and spokesman, said. “We were prepared for this and will be moving forward with additional legal measures. If they think they can deter us or make this go away, they are badly mistaken.”
In a 1½-page order issued Wednesday afternoon, Conner ruled against the lawsuit filed last month by Hunter’s legal team. The suit argued that Gwinnett’s ethics board was illegal because of its use of appointments from private organizations, but Conner’s order ruled that Gwinnett’s ethics board is “not constitutionally infirm” because it is merely a recommending body.
The final decision in Hunter’s ethics case, which was based in part on a Jan. 14 Facebook post in which he called U.S. Rep. John Lewis a “racist pig,” rested in the hands of his colleagues on the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners. Those colleagues voted last week to publicly reprimand Hunter for what they called a “pattern of behavior that fails to adequately consider the good of the County.”
“We are pleased that the court has confirmed that our ethics committee composition and ethics policy are not structured in an unconstitutional manner,” Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said Wednesday. “We certainly believed that the structure was constitutional at the time it was adopted and since then, but it is good to have a court ruling to that effect.”
Gwinnett’s ethics ordinance was adopted in 2011, amid the fallout from a corruption scandal that ultimately led to the departure or arrest of three commission members. The ordinance is primarily intended to root out conflicts of interest and shady land deals, but the attorneys who brought the ethics complaint against Hunter successfully argued that he violated tenets that dealt with unbecoming conduct and breaches of public trust.
Under the ordinance, the ethics board is not a standing body and must be assembled every time a complaint is filed. The complaint filed against Hunter on Feb. 6 was the first one ever submitted.
Appointments to the ethics board are made by five different entities, including the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and the Gwinnett County Bar Association — the private entities whose appointments, according to Hunter’s camp, represent an unconstitutional delegation of power.
Thomas recently won a DeKalb County lawsuit with a similar argument, though that county’s ethics board had the power to directly apply penalties like reprimands and fines.
Conner’s Wednesday afternoon order argued that Gwinnett’s ethics board “serves merely an investigatory function.” It also deemed the other arguments in Hunter’s lawsuit — including one asking that his reprimand be “vacated” — to be moot.
In his controversial Facebook post, Hunter also referred to Democrats as “Demonrats” and a “bunch of idiots.” Protests have continued at county commission meetings even after his reprimand, and opponents have floated the idea of pursuing a recall election.
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