Georgia Supreme Court rules Athens acting DA must face election challenge

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that a special election for the Athens district attorney’s office must proceed with the Nov. 3 general election.

The ruling pits the acting district attorney, Democrat Brian Patterson, against Deborah Gonzalez, an Athens-based lawyer and former Democratic state representative. The special election will take place on the same ballot as the presidential election, which is expected to draw the highest turnout in recent history.

Gonzalez said, “We knew we could not let the governor take away our right to have an election.”

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The court’s ruling can be traced to District Attorney Ken Mauldin’s retirement in February. Typically, the governor would appoint a new DA to fulfill the office until the next election. However, Gov. Brian Kemp has not appointed a replacement for Mauldin. According to a 2018 law, if the next election is within six months of an appointment, the appointee can stay in office until the following statewide election.

This would have been the last year of Mauldin’s four-year term, and according to the 2018 law, the next election for the seat would have been in 2022 — creating a gap of six years between elections for Athens’ district attorney. The term limit set by the state constitution for district attorneys is four years. It’s not clear if Kemp planned to appoint a new district attorney after the election.

In March, just days after Mauldin retired, Gonzalez attempted to qualify to run for his vacant post. Her request was denied by the secretary of state’s office, citing the 2018 law.

After the six-month marker was passed in May, Gonzalez sued the governor and secretary of state, alleging that the 2018 law was unconstitutional.

She also requested a federal injunction that would require the Nov. 3 special election to move forward, which was granted. Kemp and fellow Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals which certified the case to the state Supreme Court.

In a decision written by Chief Justice Harold Melton, the court ruled that the 2018 law cited by Kemp and Raffensperger was unconstitutional. Melton quoted the lower court in the decision, which wrote, “It is fundamentally unfair and constitutionally impermissible for public officials to disenfranchise voters in violation of state law so that they may fill the seats of government through the power of appointment.”