Legislative attorney: Cobb has 'no constitutional authority' in redistricting gambit

Oct. 4—Cobb County cannot redraw its commission district maps in a bid to keep Commissioner Jerica Richardson in office, an attorney for the Georgia legislature argued in a memo drafted Monday.

In a rebuke to the county government, Stuart Morelli, deputy legislative counsel for the General Assembly, wrote Cobb has "no constitutional authority" on the matter. The memo was issued at the request of state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, one of the co-sponsors of the map which threatens to remove Richardson, a Democrat, from office mid-term.

"There is no conflict. It's not General Assembly versus county," Setzler told the MDJ. "There is no issue. It is a settled legal question."

The map advanced by Republicans and signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp drew Richardson out of her District 2, and would make her ineligible for office come Jan. 1. A rival map by state Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, which was not passed, would leave her in her district.

As the MDJ previously reported, the Board of Commissioners will attempt to invoke its "home rule" powers — which allow it to amend local legislation — to make Allen's map the law of the land. To do so, a majority of the board will have to adopt a resolution at its Oct. 11 and 25 regular meetings amending the law. Republican Commissioners Keli Gambrill and JoAnn Birrell oppose the measure.

Democratic Chairwoman Lisa Cupid, meanwhile, said last month, "I cannot overlook that such a threat to our county is a possible threat to any county within the State of Georgia. I look forward to voting to support the exercise of our home rule authority, our county, and our citizens."

Whether the gambit will work in this case remains to be seen, as Richardson told the MDJ such an assertion of home rule to amend a redistricting map has never been attempted before.

In Morelli's memo, the attorney cites the Georgia Constitution, which bars local governments from using home rule on matters "affecting any elective county office" or "affecting the composition, form, procedure for election or appointment...of the county governing authority."

Morelli goes on to write that while he found no Georgia court cases speaking directly to the issue, several federal cases do. In one, a judge determined "the General Assembly is the only legislative body with the power to enact redistricting legislation."

Morelli's analysis echoes that of Joseph Young, himself a former legislative counsel to Gov. Roy Barnes, who referenced the same passages in the constitution.

"I would be very surprised if they were successful at this effort, in light of the specific constitutional ban on such an ordinance," Young told the MDJ last month.

Setzler pointed to Morelli's memo as evidence the effort has no legs.

"Anyone that's attempting to make it a sort of challenge between state and county, they're manufacturing something that simply is false. There is no conflict," Setzler said.

Morelli previously said during hearings on the maps he was "unaware of there being any very good case law over the past 50 years or so" to indicate what might happen to Richardson.

Richardson and the Cobb County attorney's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Monday, Rep. Allen argued Morelli was contradicting his previous statements in committee.

"It's very convenient to listen to legal advice when it's what you prefer. But I would prefer that (Setzler) would have listened to the first piece of legal advice given by this exact same attorney," Allen said.