August 27, 2013 9:53:35 AM
Former alderman candidate John Gaskin's petition for judicial review of the Ward 4 primary was dismissed after Special Judge Lester Williamson Jr. denied a motion Monday to declare a portion of Mississippi law unconstitutional.
Williamson found that Gaskin's petition for review, filed with the Oktibbeha County Circuit Court on June 11, fell outside of the 10-day requirement provided by Miss. Code Ann. 23-15-927. Law states such petitions must be filed "within 10 days after any contest or complaint has been filed" with a local party's executive committee.
Counsel challenged the law's constitutionality, but Williamson's opinion stated the court had no jurisdiction to hear the petition as the amended code's language was clear in establishing a timeline.
On May 24, Gaskin formally served Starkville Democratic Municipal Election Committee Chairman Chris with a petition to contest the May 7 primary. A meeting was scheduled for May 31 but subsequently canceled. Gaskin then filed the petition for judicial review with circuit court on June 11.
Gaskin is not expected to appeal the decision. His lawyers previously called for a new election after issues with redistricting developed during the May 7 primary. Attorneys originally moved that the primary "should be voided because there has been such a departure from statutory compliance as to destroy the integrity of the election and make the will of qualified voters impossible to ascertain."
"(Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker) and I both filed documents noting severe irregularities occurred that disenfranchised Ward 4 voters, with Mr. Walker's written response asserting voter fraud, voter disenfranchisement and (that) 16 or so other irregularities occurred. My decision to contest was about doing what was right, not what was easy, and there was nothing frivolous about the case," Gaskin said. "I stand behind my decision to at least attempt to stand up for the rights of over 100 voters who were disenfranchised.
"I sincerely hope our circuit clerk and Municipal election commission will review the mistakes made and implement changes to ensure we have accurate and updated voter rolls in future elections," he added. "The people of Starkville deserve to have their voices heard and votes counted."
Gaskin and Walker finished the May 7 primary tied at 186 votes, but election commission counted 12 of 16 affidavit ballots the next day. Walker picked up eight of those votes, defeating Gaskin 194-190.
"Since I was certified as the Ward 4 alderman on May 8, I have focused on serving the citizens of Starkville to the best of my abilities; however, dealing with this onerous lawsuit, which sought to discount the efforts of voters in the ward who cast ballots in the primary, has been a burdensome and costly process for me and my family," Walker said. "The court dismissing the lawsuit with prejudice is an affirmation of the certified election result. Beyond a shadow of doubt, the court's opinion will allow all of us to move forward without further distraction or uncertainty."
Gaskin's attorneys argued he was denied due process when the committee agreed to hear his claim then canceled the proceedings, thereby creating a timing issue with his circuit court filing.
"The statute specifically establishes the right to judicial review when the committee fails to promptly meet. Any failure of the committee to conduct a hearing concerning the election contest was harmless, and, furthermore, such failure is specifically outlined in Miss. Code...as grounds for filing a petition for judicial review in circuit court," Williamson's wrote in his opinion. "Therefore, the court finds that the committee's failure to meet did not violate the plaintiff's right to due process."
Gaskin's representatives previously said in a July 24 hearing that the statute is unconstitutionally vague due to the "lack of public proclamation of validity by an elected official or body," but an attorney general's opinion contends state law did not deprive him of adequate opportunity for judicial review, Williamson's ruling states.
Williamson's ruling also stated that the law, as written, is not vague.
"The court can find nothing vague about this language such that persons of ordinary intelligence would necessarily have to guess at its meaning and differ to its application," he wrote.
"We are delighted that the court considered our arguments favorably. Admittedly, this is a difficult way to lose a (case) because it is one of inadvertence," said Lydia Quarles, who represented Walker in the proceedings.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch