Baker Co. case to be heard by GA Supreme Court - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Baker Co. case to be heard by GA Supreme Court

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ATLANTA, GA (WALB) -

Two women are appealing a superior court ruling dismissing their petition to have a member of the Baker County Board of Education removed from office, in the case of:

LILLY ET AL. V. HEARD (S14A0433)

Here is a summary of the facts of the case-

 In May 2012, Sharon Heard filed an application to run as a candidate for the Baker County Board of Education. In June 2012, Mendell Cowart, a voter and taxpayer in Baker County, challenged Heard's qualifications, alleging she did not reside in Baker County and was not registered to vote in Baker County.

On June 18, the County Board of Elections and Registration held a hearing on Cowart's challenge, during which Cowart argued that "a candidate has to be a registered voter in the county for a year to be qualified."

The Board determined that Heard transferred her voter's registration to Baker County on April 30, 2012. At the hearing's conclusion, the Board entered its decision, finding that Heard had been a resident of Baker County for 12 months prior to the election as required by Official Code of Georgia § 45-2-1. The Board also found that she was a registered voter at the time she qualified to run and there was no requirement that she be a registered voter for the full 12-month period of residency.

Cowart was told she could appeal the Board's decision to the Baker County Superior Court within 10 days of the decision, but she never filed an appeal. On Nov. 6, 2012, Heard was elected to the school board and currently serves as its chair.

            On July 10, 2013 – more than seven months after Heard took office – two other voters, Nettie Lilly and Janet Anderson – filed a "Verified Complaint: Writ of Quo Warranto, Petition for Writ of Prohibition, Temporary Restraining Order, Injunction and/or Declaratory Relief" that sought to have Heard removed from her office on the school board. They argued Heard had not met the residency requirements to run for the office and that she had therefore been ineligible to seek the office.

Heard filed a Motion to Dismiss their complaint, arguing it contained the same grounds for Heard's removal that Cowart had raised previously and that had been heard, considered and decided by the board of elections almost a year earlier. At the hearing on Heard's Motion to Dismiss, the attorney for Lilly and Anderson presented an amended complaint, alleging that they had an additional reason for removing Heard from office which was that she remained unqualified to serve "as Heard does not reside in the District that she represents." Following the hearing, the judge ruled in Heard's favor and granted her Motion to Dismiss. Lilly and Anderson now appeal to the state Supreme Court.

            ARGUMENTS: The attorney for Lilly and Anderson argues the trial court erred in dismissing their case. Official Code of Georgia § 45-2-1 "requires that a person be a resident of the county for 12 months and also be a qualified voter entitled to vote in that county," the attorney argues in briefs. "In this case, Appellants [i.e. Lilly and Anderson] alleged that Heard did not meet either of these qualifications." The attorney also argues that the petition for a Writ of Quo Warranto, which in Latin means "by what authority," is the proper method to challenge an office holder's eligibility to hold office. Another Georgia statute states that: "The writ of quo warranto may issue to inquire into the right of any person to any public office the duties of which he is in fact discharging."

The trial court also erred in granting the Motion to Dismiss even though an amendment had been filed to the complaint. "Since Heard is not a resident of the district that she purports to represent, the seat that Heard currently occupies is vacant as a matter of law." Finally, the trial court erred in determining there was "privity" – or a relationship or connection – between Lilly and Anderson, and Cowart who challenged Heard before them. There is "no evidence in the record to establish that Appellants have any connection with the individuals who challenged the Appellee [i.e. Heard] prior to the election in a pro se manner without the benefit of counsel," the attorney argues.

            Heard's attorney argues the trial court did not err in granting her Motion to Dismiss the case. The trial court correctly determined that the amended petition arose from the same facts and circumstances that had already been decided in June 2012. The court cases cited by Lilly's attorney are different from the facts and circumstances contained in this case and do not apply. Also, while "under ordinary circumstances," a petition for a Writ of Quo Warranto is a proper vehicle for a voter and taxpayer to contest an elected official's qualifications to hold office, "the facts and procedural history that are unique to this case are not ordinary and are clearly distinguishable from the facts and procedural history contained in the litany of cases cited by the Petitioners," Heard's attorney argues in briefs. "In Heard's case, the very same allegations challenging Heard's residency being raised by the Petitioners to the trial court were previously heard by the Board on June 18, 2012 and decided on June 21, 2012" in response to Cowart's complaint. And a "quo warranto proceeding cannot be utilized as a device to rehash the same factual allegations from the very same set of facts that were previously adjudicated…."

The trial court also did not err when it granted Heard's Motion to Dismiss even though an amendment to the complaint had been filed. The amended petition did not in fact add a new claim, but instead argued the same facts and circumstances that had already been decided by the elections board.

Finally, the trial court did not err in determining that there was a connection between Lilly, Anderson and Cowart. Cowart was a voter and taxpayer who challenged Heard's qualifications for the benefit of all Baker County voters and taxpayers just as Lilly and Anderson did. "An elected official should simply not be forced to repeatedly defend against the same claims alleging the same facts and same circumstances, and there should be finality…," Heard's attorney contends.

Attorney for Appellants (Lilly): Maurice Luther King, Jr.

Attorney for Appellee (Heard): Lawton Heard, Jr.

 

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