Judge upholds disqualification of challenger to judge in Trump’s Georgia election interference case

Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee presides in court, Feb. 27, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, Pool, File)

A judge upheld the disqualification of a candidate who had planned to run against the judge presiding over former President Donald Trump’s 2020 Georgia election interference case.

Tiffani Johnson is one of two people who filed paperwork to challenge Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee. An administrative law judge earlier this month found that she was not qualified to run for the seat after she failed to appear at a hearing on a challenge to her eligibility, and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger adopted that decision.

Johnson last week filed a petition for review of that decision in Fulton County Superior Court. After all of McAfee’s colleagues on the Fulton County bench were recused, a judge in neighboring DeKalb County took up the matter and held a hearing Thursday on Johnson’s petition.

At the end of the hearing, DeKalb Superior Court Judge Stacey Hydrick upheld the decision that said Johnson is not eligible, news outlets reported. A representative for Johnson’s campaign did not immediately respond to an email Friday seeking comment.

The ruling leaves McAfee with a single challenger, civil rights attorney Robert Patillo, in the nonpartisan race for his seat.

With early voting set to begin Monday for the May 21 election, it’s likely too late to remove Johnson’s name from the ballot. The law says that if a candidate is determined not to be qualified, that person’s name should be withheld from the ballot or stricken from any ballots. If there isn’t enough time to strike the candidate’s name, prominent notices are to be placed at polling places advising voters that the candidate is disqualified and that votes cast for her will not be counted.

Georgia law allows any person who is eligible to vote for a candidate to challenge the candidate’s qualifications by filing a complaint with the secretary of state’s office within two weeks of the qualification deadline. A lawyer for Sean Arnold, a Fulton County voter, filed the challenge on March 22.

Arnold’s complaint noted that the Georgia Constitution requires all judges to “reside in the geographical area in which they are elected to serve.” He noted that in Johnson’s qualification paperwork she listed her home address as being in DeKalb County and wrote that she had been a legal resident of neighboring Fulton County for “0 consecutive years.” The qualification paperwork Johnson signed includes a line that says the candidate is “an elector of the county of my residence eligible to vote in the election in which I am a candidate.”

Administrative Law Judge Ronit Walker on April 2 held a hearing on the matter but noted in her decision that Johnson did not appear.

Walker wrote that the burden of proof is on the candidate to “affirmatively establish eligibility for office” and that Johnson’s failure to appear at the hearing “rendered her incapable of meeting her burden of proof.”

Walker concluded that Johnson was unqualified to be a candidate for superior court judge in the Atlanta Judicial Circuit. Raffensperger adopted the judge’s findings and conclusions in reaching his decision to disqualify her.

A lawyer Johnson, who said in her petition that she has since moved to Fulton County, argued that Johnson failed to show up for the hearing because she did not receive the notice for it.

Without addressing the merits of the residency challenge, Hydrick found that Johnson had been given sufficient notice ahead of the hearing before the administrative law judge and concluded that the disqualification was proper.