Judge rules Democrat can run, finds district violated rights

Raffensperger beat Democratic state Rep. Bee Nguyen and Libertarian Ted Metz in the midterm election, which concluded Tuesday, Nov. 8. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

A Democrat running for the Georgia Public Service Commission can stay on the ballot in November, a judge ruled Thursday, saying that districts drawn to exclude her violated her rights.

Patty Durand of Conyers should be allowed to continue her candidacy for the District 2 seat on the Georgia Public Service Commission, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Melynee Leftridge ruled.

Durand is the Democratic candidate running against District 2 Republican incumbent Tim Echols of Hoschton and Libertarian Colin McKinney of Athens. But Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger challenged her candidacy, saying that she did not meet her district’s one-year residency requirement.

Leftridge ruled, however, that the requirement was not constitutional in Durand’s case because she was targeted based on her residency.

“The record here contains substantial evidence that District 2 was drawn to exclude Ms. Durand, specifically, as a candidate,” Leftridge ruled.

The judge cited text messages between Echols and Public Service Commissioner Tricia Pridemore, who drew the districts that lawmakers adopted in March. Leftridge said evidence shows Pridemore had drawn a map that left Gwinnett County, where Durand previously lived, in District 2. But after Echols texted Durand’s previous address in Peachtree Corners to Pridemore, she drew a new map that excluded Gwinnett County from the district.

Durand responded by moving to Conyers, which is part of the new District 2, but Raffensperger challenged her qualifications in April for not meeting the one-year residency requirement there.

Raffensperger’s office did not immediately respond to an email inquiring about whether he would appeal his residency challenge to the state Supreme Court.

The commission regulates Georgia Power Co. and will decide how the utility’s customers pay for its share of $30 billion being spent on two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta.

A federal judge in a separate case recently ruled that statewide elections for the commission illegally dilute the power of Black voters, and ordered elections be conducted by district.

That ruling would have delayed elections in District 2 and District 3, a seat now held by Republican Fitz Johnson, but the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed that ruling. As a result, voters statewide can still cast ballots in all commission races regardless of district. Because elections are staggered, only those districts will appear on the November ballot.

Durand argued that the residency requirement was not unconstitutional overall, but was unconstitutional as it applied to her. Leftridge agreed that it violated her First Amendment right to free association and her 14th Amendment right to equal protection, writing that claims that the wholesale redrawing of District 2 was necessary to accommodate population shifts was merely a “pretextual” reason to target Durand.

Leftridge said the case is different from an earlier case in which the state Supreme Court upheld the residency rule because the redrawn districts excluded “a substantial number of residents from seeking office,” citing earlier federal court decisions that ruled against residency requirements in newly drawn electoral districts.

The judge rejected Raffensperger’s claims that Durand’s complaints were a “political question over which this court lacks jurisdiction,” which is how the U.S. Supreme Court has treated partisan gerrymandering.

If Durand is later disqualified, the state Democratic Party would choose a new nominee.