Georgia Supreme Court rules in Baker County election case

Photo: MGN Online

The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled in favor of sitting Baker County School Board member after her opponent sued over the results.

According to the unanimous opinion, the court has thrown out a judge’s refusal to dismiss a lawsuit by Brendette Williams' opponent, Sharon Heard, who challenged the primary election as fraudulent and irregular.

“We conclude that Heard’s challenge to the primary election is now moot, and we therefore vacate the trial court’s order and remand this case for the contest action to be dismissed,” Justice Michael P. Boggs writes for the Court.

However, Heard did raise issue with the judge that oversaw the case. Justices say that "a superior court judge or senior superior court judge must be selected to preside over the dismissal of this contest action.”

As a result, a new judge must be selected to dismiss the case.

Case background from the Georgia Supreme Court:

Williams and Heard ran for the Elmodel District seat on the Baker County Board of Education in the Democratic primary election held May 24, 2016. Following Heard’s defeat by 21 votes, the results were certified on May 27 as accurate, but Heard requested a recount. On June 3, 2016, a recount was conducted and the results were recertified as accurate. Heard then filed a “Petition to Contest Primary Election,” alleging “misconduct, fraud or irregularity” on the part of the Baker County Board of Elections, claiming that some poll workers allegedly urged voters in the polling place to vote for Williams and not for Heard. Judge O. Wayne Ellerbee, a retired juvenile court judge, was appointed to preside over the matter. Williams presented a motion asking to intervene as a party in the case, as well as a motion asking the judge to dismiss Heard’s petition as having been filed too late and a motion asking the judge to recuse himself because he was not qualified to preside over the action. The judge granted Williams’ motion to intervene and also granted Heard’s request to access the election materials, which included the Recertification of Results from the June 3 primary. The trial court subsequently denied Williams’ motion to dismiss the case and her motion to disqualify the judge.
The general election was held Nov. 8, 2016 and Williams, who was unopposed, was elected to the school board. On Nov. 14, 2016, the Georgia Supreme Court granted Williams’ application to appeal the trial court’s denial of Williams’ motions. In her appeal, Williams argued that 1) Heard’s challenge was moot because there had been a general election since the primary; 2) even if it were not moot, the trial court erred in denying the motion to dismiss because Heard missed the deadline for filing her petition to contest the primary results; and 3) the trial court erred by denying Williams’ motion asking the judge to disqualify himself.
“[T]he established rule in Georgia is that a primary election contest becomes moot after the general election has taken place,” today’s opinion says. As this Court explained in its 1997 decision in Payne v. Chatman and cases following, “[we] adhere to the rule that litigants should make every effort to dispose of election disputes with dispatch and that the courts should not interfere with the orderly process of elections after the general election has been held.”
“Heard could have requested an expedited hearing on her contest petition in the trial court, moved to stay the general election, or requested expedited consideration of Williams’ application for interlocutory appeal,” the opinion says. “But Heard took no action to ensure that her challenge to the primary election result was considered in a timely manner.”
Because it has ruled that Heard’s challenge is moot, the high court does not address Williams’ motion asking the court to dismiss Heard’s petition as untimely. The Court has ruled however, on Williams’ motion asking Judge Ellerbee, a retired juvenile court judge, to be disqualified.
“We hold that he does not so qualify, and that a different judge, who satisfies the requirements of Georgia Code § 21-2-523 must be selected to preside,” the opinion says. Specifically, the statute says that, “The superior court having jurisdiction of a contest case governed by this article shall be presided over by a superior court judge or senior judge.”
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