The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that Fulton County voters have standing to sue their local government in a lawsuit to unseal ballots from the 2020 election. In December 2022, the state Supreme Court remanded Caroline Jeffords et al. v. Fulton County et al. to the Court of Appeals for reconsideration in light of the ruling in Sons of Confederate Veterans v. Henry County Board of Commissioners. This historic ruling has proven pivotal for determining who has standing when a plaintiff brings a lawsuit against a government official.
Standing has long been a hurdle not only in recent election-related lawsuits but can quickly bring any lawsuit to an end when establishing if a plaintiff has in fact been injured by a certain action taken by someone or some entity, especially government officials. The delay in ruling on the issue of standing has hindered the ability for voters to inquire into and reveal the legitimacy of election results. By highlighting the fact that “injury need not always be individualized; sometimes it can be a generalized grievance shared by community members, especially other residents, taxpayers, voters, or citizens,” Presiding Judge Christopher McFadden has now paved the way for ultimate transparency in cases where standing was once at issue regarding suing government officials. Undoubtedly, it is clear that voters have standing.
The Court of Appeals quoted the Supreme Court’s opinion, stating:
“Georgia has long recognized that members of a community, whether as citizens, residents, taxpayers, or voters, may be injured when their local government fails to follow the law. Government at all levels has a legal duty to follow the law; a local government owes that legal duty to its citizens, residents, taxpayers, or voters (i.e., community stakeholders), and the violation of that legal duty constitutes an injury that our case law has recognized as conferring standing to those community stakeholders, even if the plaintiff suffered no individualized injury.”
Voters are injured when elections are not administered according to the law or when elected officials fail to follow the voters’ referendum for increased taxes to fund a particular project, so voters may have standing to vindicate public rights. As it stands, Chief Judge Brian Amero in Henry County Superior Court has ordered roughly 147,000 absentee ballots from the Fulton County case to be reviewed, but Jeffords’s case could not previously move forward until the issue of standing was settled in the higher courts. These ballots in question came under scrutiny when observers were suspicious they were printed on a different stock of paper than regular ballots. They appeared to have been printed instead of marked by ink by a voter’s hand or were not creased, indicating they had not been placed in an absentee ballot envelope and mailed.
Ultimately, citizens ought to have a right to review what the government does in the name of accountability and transparency, especially for something as sacred as elections and our right to not have legal votes diluted by illegal votes. Voters, like citizens and taxpayers, are community stakeholders. Those very stakeholders are the backbone of our democratic system and have pushed forward in the name of legal recourse to seek justice.
Bob Cheeley, counsel for Jeffords, issued the following statement:
“This decision by a three-judge panel of the Georgia Court of Appeals represents a landmark victory for transparency and accountability in government. This decision represents common sense and is the first time in our country’s history that an appeals court has recognized that citizens of a state have standing to question important governmental functions such as the manner in which votes are processed and tabulated.
“In this case, on May 21, 2021, the trial judge ordered that the plaintiff had established prima facia proof of irregularities by Fulton County Elections staff which warranted unsealing of ballots in connection with the November 2020 election. Before that examination of ballots could occur, however, the judge granted Fulton’s motion to dismiss which urged that plaintiff did not have standing which led to this appeal by Caroline Jeffords to the Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.
“This decision finally puts an end to the arrogance of government officials who believe that the people are subservient to government. Now, government is put where our founders intended it to be-subservient to the people!”
The monumental ruling is a win for not only the plaintiffs in this case, but for all Georgia voters. Previously, the avenue to seek recourse in an election case was convoluted and essentially non-existent to voters. However, both the Georgia Court of Appeals and Georgia Supreme Court have solidified an avenue for justice…finally.
Courtney Kramer is a Georgia lawyer who practices political and election law, previously serving on President Donald Trump’s legal team.