July 14, 2017 10:56:01 AM
Starkville mayoral candidate Johnny Moore's challenge of May's Democratic Primary runoff likely will remain in legal limbo after attorneys for Mayor Lynn Spruill promised to appeal Special Judge Barry W. Ford's Thursday decision denying her motion to dismiss the case.
Ford's ruling allows Moore's challenge to proceed, but a timetable for its resolution is not clear because of the pending appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The entire issue -- the appeal and overall election challenge -- could easily be held up in litigation for months.
Spruill's counsel, Jim Mozingo, previously asked the judge to dismiss the entire case and argued the court had a limited jurisdiction and could only review the Starkville Democratic Election Committee's hearing and decision to affirm Spruill's six-vote mayoral victory.
Mozingo argued Moore's counsel, William Starks, effectively abandoned the challenge by filing a petition for judicial review with circuit court one day before the Democratic Party, at Moore's behest, was scheduled to hear his appeal.
Ford, however, ruled Starks' filing was timely and should proceed.
"We're very pleased with the decision and believe he followed state law in denying the motion to dismiss and allowing us to proceed with the merits of the claim," Starks said. "We're looking forward to presenting the actual evidence we have to the court in a hearing and not being thwarted from doing that. We want the true results of the election to come out."
Mozingo said the ruling could set a precedent where those seeking to challenge the results of an election can choose to ignore statute calling for local municipalities' political parties to hear disputes first, thereby allowing them to push their cases to court without following the proper procedure.
"Do you file (a petition with the election commission) on day one and then, on day two, you can go file with court so you can skip through that step and never say anything about it? I don't see that harmonizing with statute," he said. "I don't think the Legislature said you can skip this step. The committee acted within 10 days and gave an opportunity to present evidence. The statute doesn't say, 'If you think you're not going to have enough time, then you can just go ahead and file it in court.'"
The Democratic Party went on to affirm Spruill's victory last month after Starks only argued a signature issue between the city and the party meant the election was invalid and Starkville breached the agreement by using paper ballots instead of machines.
Moore's claim also alleged other issues -- Starkville election commissioners incorrectly rejected at least nine affidavits, while more than 60 absentee ballots have issues; numerous ballots contained improper and illegal marks; and the number of signatures in voter receipt and poll books from certain precincts did not match the number of ballots cast in the runoff -- but Starks, in the SDEC hearing, declined to push those arguments, saying a court order would be required to open ballot boxes since the matter was now filed with the court system.
Moore's challenge asks the court to either accept properly cast ballots or call for a third election.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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