Updated: Jul 2, 2020
By Joe Johnson
A federal court judge on Thursday ruled that there will be an election in November to choose a new district attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit, which encompasses Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties.
The ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed in May by Deborah Gonzalez, a former state representative and candidate for DA.
The election was placed in doubt after former district attorney Ken Mauldin resigned in February, making his chief assistant, Brian Patterson, acting DA and triggering a special election in November. At that time, Patterson and Gonzalez were already running for the position. Mauldin retired on Feb. 29, 10 months before his term was to expire at the end of this year.
Under a state law passed in 2018, if Kemp appointed a replacement for Mauldin within six months of the election, the election would be pushed back two years, but Kemp failed to make the appointment by the May 3 statutory deadline, effectively cancelling the election and leaving Patterson in place as DA until the next general election in 2022.
Gonzalez, joined by four voters from the judicial circuit, filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, subsequently filed suit against Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, alleging that voters were being disenfranchised by having their ability to choose a new district attorney this year taken away, and that the 2018 law is unconstitutional.
“Today was a major win for the people, for democracy, for over 150,000 voters in Athens and Oconee," Gonzalez said. "Judge Mark Cohen gave a solid decision in which he found that we(the plaintiff) would win on the merits that the 2018 law was unconstitutional and so he granted our motion for preliminary injunction, which means that as of right now, the DA race for the Western Judicial Circuit will be on the November 2020 ballot. It will be the peoples’ choice to decide who they want as their next District Attorney.”
In his 22-page decision U.S. District Judge Mark H. Cohen stated that “the failure to conduct an election for the office of District Attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit violates the Georgia Constitution and thus the Fourteenth Amendment, Plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm if the Court declined to enter a preliminary injunction due to the denial of their right to vote in the upcoming 2020 election.”
The judge ordered that Raffensperger “shall take all steps necessary to conduct the election for the office of District Attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit for the term beginning January 1, 2021, on the same date as the 2020 general election, currently set for November 3, 2020.
“It is further ORDERED that the parties shall confer in good faith and endeavor to present to the Court a proposed consent order, no later than fourteen (14) days from the date of this Order, which sets forth the procedure for conducting a special election for the District Attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit on November 3, 2020, for a term beginning on January 1, 2021, including but not limited to the dates and times for a specially-set period for candidates to qualify to run in the special election and the incorporation of sufficient time for compliance with deadlines for the printing and mailing of absentee ballots, including to those voters covered by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.”