McAfee challenger out of contention for Fulton judicial race, judges rules

Trump judge still facing one opponent
Judge Scott McAfee presides over a hearing on Aug. 31, 2023. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Judge Scott McAfee presides over a hearing on Aug. 31, 2023. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

An attorney challenging the judge overseeing the Fulton County election interference case remains disqualified from the May 21 race, a DeKalb County judge determined Thursday.

After hearing arguments for nearly four hours, DeKalb Superior Court Judge Stacey Hydrick opted to uphold a recent ruling from an administrative law judge that struck candidate Tiffani Johnson’s eligibility from the ballot.

Administrative Law Judge Ronit Walker had disqualified Johnson from standing for Fulton Superior Court judge after her residency was challenged and she failed to appear at an April 2 hearing. Walker’s decision was then finalized by the Secretary of State’s office.

Johnson’s attorney Kurt Kastorf argued Thursday that Johnson didn’t receive proper advanced notice of the hearing before Walker and that it is too early in the electoral process for residency challenges to be entertained. Such matters are ripe for consideration only at the time of the election, he said, and all that matters under the law is that Johnson was eligible to vote in any county in Georgia during the May election when she filed paperwork to run — not exclusively Fulton.

Until recently, Johnson resided in DeKalb. A former assistant solicitor general in Fulton, Johnson entered the race with the intent to move to the county if she won, her attorney previously said. Johnson recently relocated to Fulton, Kastorf clarified Thursday.

Attorneys from the Attorney General’s office, who argued for the Secretary of State, and a Fulton voter who brought the original challenge pushed back against Johnson’s stance.

Jeremy Berry, who represents voter Sean Arnold, argued that candidates must be able to vote for themselves when they enter a race by residing “in the geographical area in which they are elected to serve,” meaning Johnson needed to be living and registered to vote in Fulton back in March. Two lawyers for the AG’s office, meanwhile, surprised all the parties in the courtroom by agreeing with Kastorf’s assessment about being eligible to vote in any Georgia county — but they still argued that Hydrick should back Walker and the Secretary of State’s decision.

“Once a candidacy challenge has been filed... the candidate has to move that needle somehow to establish their qualifications to hold the office,” said Senior Assistant AG Russell Willard. Johnson, he said, “failed to meet it because she didn’t show up.”

Credit: Shannon McCaffrey

icon to expand image

Credit: Shannon McCaffrey

Hydrick declined to wade into the fight on when and how residency fights can be waged. But she concluded that Johnson had been given adequate notice before the hearing with Walker via email and regular mail and that it was her campaign’s responsibility to monitor all channels, including spam folders, where the hearing notice was later found.

Johnson expressed shock at Hydrick’s decision, especially after Willard voiced support for her attorney’s stance on residency. She said she’s still weighing her legal options. Her team could appeal Hydrick’s ruling, which is currently being drafted, but time is running out.

“This is still very fresh but I have the intention to continue in my fight,” Johnson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the hearing.

Voters are slated to begin casting their ballots on Monday in the nonpartisan race, in which incumbent Judge Scott McAfee is seeking his first full term in office.

McAfee, who was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp early last year, has gained national prominence for his role overseeing the racketeering case against former President Donald Trump and 14 others — as well as the recent fight to disqualify Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis.

Civil rights attorney Robert Patillo is also challenging McAfee. If Johnson remains out of the race, he and McAfee no longer face the prospect of a costly June 18 runoff, which is required if no candidate wins at least 50% of the vote.

Even though Johnson is disqualified from the race, her name is likely to appear on Fulton ballots since many have already been printed. Instead, notices are expected to be placed at polling locations alerting voters that Johnson has been disqualified from the race.