After a nearly year-long saga, voters finally have their answer on whether they can vote for their next district attorney this year.
The Georgia Supreme Court issued its unanimous opinion early Thursday afternoon, ruling Athens-Clarke and Oconee County voters can vote for their next district attorney next month and won’t have to wait until Nov. 2022 to make the decision.
“It’s an incredible victory,” District Attorney candidate Deborah Gonzalez said, who sued Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to reinstate the election. “Voters in Athens and Oconee now have the right to vote for their own District Attorney again and, not only that, it will affect every district attorney race in this state. Those are now protected and people can vote for their district attorneys.
In February, former DA Ken Mauldin’s resignation triggered a 2018 Georgia law which specified if Gov. Kemp filled Mauldin’s vacancy with an appointment after May 3 — six months before Election Day — his appointee would serve as the next district attorney until the winner of the 2022 DA election was decided.
Raffensperger then ruled Gonzalez couldn’t qualify for the November 2020 election in light of the 2018 law, leading Gonzalez and four other registered voters to sue Kemp and Raffensperger for effectively canceling the election, decrying it as an act of voter suppression.
The lawsuit eventually ended up at the Georgia Supreme Court, which agreed to expedite the case in light of the election’s proximity and hear its oral arguments last month.
The court’s deliberation centered around whether the 2018 law, Georgia Code § 45-5-3.2, violates Article VI, Section VIII, Paragraph I (a) of the Georgia Constitution, which the court found it did.
In the court’s opinion, the 2018 law allows a district attorney appointed by the governor to serve beyond the remainder of the unexpired four-year term of the prior district attorney, despite not being elected, which is required by the constitution. Chief Justice Harold D. Melton wrote the opinion.
“This conflicts directly with the mandate of Paragraph I (a), because the appointee’s tenure in office would circumvent the constitutional requirement that the successor district attorney be chosen in the general election preceding the expiration of the fixed four-year term that the appointee incumbent fills,” Melton said in the opinion. “The General Assembly does not have the authority to extend the terms of appointed district attorneys in this way.”
However, the election still hasn’t gone off without a hitch. A few weeks ago, the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office distributed misprinted mail-in ballots to 11,911 voters in Athens-Clarke County and 4,119 voters in Oconee County for the district attorney election which listed district attorney candidate Brian Patterson as the incumbent district attorney. Following Mauldin’s resignation, Patterson was appointed the interim district attorney.
Gonzalez, Patterson and Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney James Chafin will face off in the ballot box on Nov. 3 to decide who will be the Western Judicial Circuit’s next district attorney, which encompasses Athens-Clarke and Oconee County.