Georgia’s judicial watchdog agency is probing the City of South Fulton Municipal Court’s practice of reducing fines for defendants who agree to register to vote, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.
“The Judicial Qualifications Commission is looking into the situation to determine whether any violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct have occurred,” Ben Easterlin, the commission’s director, told The AJC. The JQC investigates complaints about judges.
South Fulton Municipal Court Chief Judge Tiffany Sellers said through a city spokeswoman Friday that she didn't do anything wrong.
“I’m confident that I did not act inappropriately nor did I violate any state or federal laws,” Sellers said.
The controversy came to light this month when South Fulton Solicitor LaDawn Jones disclosed on Twitter that defendants in the city’s Municipal Court had their fines reduced in exchange for registering to vote.
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“Welllllll we registered voters in City of South Fulton today,” Jones tweeted with a link to a news article about Taylor Swift encouraging her Instagram followers to register to vote before the upcoming congressional midterm elections. “Everyone got $50 off their citation if they registered or confirmed their registration.”
“Busted…” Joseph Danet, who uses the Twitter handle @JosephDanet, responded. “It’s a felony.”
Other critics wondered whether Jones was attempting to turn out the vote for Democrats. Home to about 100,000 residents, the City of South Fulton was created less than two years ago in Fulton County, which voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
Democrats have scrambled this year to sign up new voters and encourage others who rarely cast ballots to do so in November. The deadline to register to vote was Oct. 9.
Chris Corey, who uses the Twitter handle @Cdcorey76Chris, replied to Jones’ post: “Did they also get a list of Democrats to vote for?”
It was unclear how long the registration effort lasted.
In a prepared statement sent to the AJC, Jones denied she did anything illegal. She said she has offered other alternatives to fines, including attending City Council meetings and completing community service. Further, the former Democratic state lawmaker said she has not asked any of the defendants about their political preferences and has not mentioned any candidates or campaigns.
“I do not agree with the argument that considering a person’s civic engagement when determining what their penalty for a traffic ticket should be is the same as giving money, nor is it a gift,” she said. “Everyone left the city of South Fulton paying for a traffic citation and did not receive U.S. currency nor a tangible gift.
“As a former legislator I know the Legislature says what it means and means what it says,” she continued. “I believe the language is plain and those attempting to stretch the definitions of the words ‘money’ and ‘gifts’ are wrong.”
Jones pointed to the national media attention South Fulton has received for its “innovative” criminal justice system, which was previously run entirely by black women. A photo of the eight women, including Jones, in their wood-paneled courtroom went viral on social media with the hashtag #BlackGirlMagic. Articles about the court have highlighted the empathy, respect and patience it has shown defendants.
In the same statement she sent the AJC, Jones recommended that state lawmakers adopt legislation requiring “every government entity that citizens encounter to assist with voter registration.”
“America’s history of voter suppression makes us cautious even of programs that do the opposite of suppression,” she said. “My program was intended as an opportunity to engage citizens and award those who were already engaged.”
Bryan Tyson, an Atlanta-based attorney who specializes in election law, said Jones’ actions were illegal.
“It’s my view that what she did was a violation of both the state and federal laws,” said Tyson, former executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Council. “It is up to a prosecutor on whether they want to pursue charges in that particular case.”
Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.