ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia judge heard arguments but didn’t rule Monday on a long-shot attempt to disqualify Georgia Lt. Gov. Burt Jones from holding office because of Jones’ participation as an elector for Donald Trump in 2020.
The lawsuit comes as a decision remains in limbo on whether to prosecute the Republican on state charges, due to a lack of a special prosecutor willing to take the case.
A group of four Georgia voters, including the former head of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP, on Dec. 7 asked a judge to declare that Jones was ineligible to hold office in Georgia because he violated his oath of office by signing his name as an elector for Trump. Democrat Joe Biden was certified as winning Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in the 2020 election.
Opponents nationwide are challenging Trump’s eligibility to appear on the ballot, arguing he’s barred under a clause in the U.S. Constitution that forbids those who “engaged in insurrection” from holding office. The provision was mainly used after the Civil War to keep former confederates out of government.
In the Georgia case, the challengers argue the same clause bars Jones from holding office. That’s because Jones, then a state senator, had taken an oath to support the U.S. and Georgia constitutions. They say Jones “is an insurrectionist against the Constitution of the United States of America.”
Jones, who didn’t attend Monday’s hearing, said the challenge is fueled by partisan politics.
“Like President Trump, I am being targeted by liberal Democrats intent on weaponizing the legal system against strong conservatives fighting for common-sense conservative values,” Jones said in a statement.
William Dillon, Jones’ attorney, argues that the challenge lacks evidence to show Jones “‘engaged in an insurrection’ against the United States or has ‘given aid and comfort to the enemies’ of the United States.”
Superior Court Judge Thomas Wilson heard arguments Monday in Jones’ hometown of Jackson, Georgia, 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of Atlanta. Wilson gave lawyers time to file additional briefs before ruling. Wayne Kendall, a lawyer for the petitioners, said in a telephone interview after the hearing that he expects Wilson to reject the challenge. Kendall said he then expects to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Jones was one of 16 Republicans who gathered on Dec. 14, 2020, at Georgia’s gold-domed Capitol, claiming to be legitimate electors. The meeting is a critical element in the prosecution of Trump and 18 others who were indicted by a Georgia grand jury in August for efforts to overturn Biden’s narrow win.
Of those indicted in August, only three acted as Trump electors, and all were indicted for crimes beyond that.
An earlier special grand jury recommended that Jones should also be indicted on felony charges. But Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis was barred by a judge from indicting Jones. A judge ruled that Willis, an elected Democrat, had a conflict of interest because she hosted a fundraiser for the Democrat who lost to Jones in 2022’s election for lieutenant governor.
The Prosecuting Attorneys Council, a state agency supporting district attorneys, is supposed to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether Jones’ actions were criminal. Pete Skandalakis, the council’s executive director, said by text message Monday that he has yet to find a prosecutor to do so. Skandalakis said he anticipated he would eventually find a prosecutor.
Dillon, in a telephone interview, said Jones believed he was acting to preserve Trump’s legal options and that there was legal precedent for an alternate slate of electors. In court papers, he said Jones was tricked, just like Robert Sinners, a Trump campaign official in Georgia.
“If Mr. Sinners, the admitted ‘organizer of the Georgia Fake Elector Scheme,’ felt that he was tricked by the President’s attorneys (Rudy Giuliani, Kenneth Chesebro and John Eastman) and had become a ‘useful idiot’ in the scheme, then it confounds the imagination (even of the Petitioners’ vivid imagination) how Respondent could not likewise have been duped by this trio of learned counsel, then representing President Trump,” Dillon wrote.
But Kendall said Jones also helped organize a legislative hearing where Giuliani and others made false claims about election results, called for a legislative session to award Georgia’s 16 electoral votes to Trump, and signed a legal brief supporting Georgia’s results being overturned. Jones has said he flew to Washington on Jan. 5, 2021, with a letter urging then-Vice President Mike Pence to delay tallying Electoral College votes, only to say he decided not give it to Pence after dinner with the vice president.
Those who want to eject Jones from office also say his claim of being misled is disproven by continued support of Trump after Jan. 6. But Dillon said continuing to support Trump doesn’t mean Jones committed sedition.
“Were that the standard, then almost every Republican party member in office in Congress or anywhere in the country would also be subject to the same arguments that they had committed sedition,” Dillon said. “Clearly that’s not the standard.”
Jeff Amy, The Associated Press