A federal judge has sided with Kelvin Simmons over a state law that barred him from seeking re-election to the Gainesville city school board, but the ruling was too late to make a difference for Simmons.
U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy this week issued a temporary injunction preventing the state from enforcing an anti-nepotism law. The law is meant to prevent relatives of school administrators from running for school board seats in the same districts as their relatives.
Simmons joined Bartow County Board of Education member Lamar Grizzle in filing a federal lawsuit challenging the law in January, four months after local officials determined Simmons could not appear on the ballot.
Simmons, who served on the school board from 1991 until last year, is married to Gainesville Middle School Principal Audrey Simmons. Grizzle’s wife is an assistant principal in the Bartow County School system.
Simmons’ Ward 4 seat was eventually won by Delores Diaz.
Murphy, in a 61-page order issued this week, said Simmons and Grizzle had a “substantial likelihood” of prevailing in the suit with respect to their First Amendment rights of ballot access.
“It is extremely likely that (the law) will severely burden the rights of numerous Georgia voters, as it likely will bar individuals across the state from running as candidates for their local school boards, thereby depriving voters of the right to vote for candidates of their choice,” Murphy wrote.
The judge wrote that the law is overly broad, “because it simply excludes certain relatives from office, rather than addressing the real problem of nepotism — possible biased decisions of school board members.”
Murphy also noted that Georgia already has laws in place to address nepotism, including statutes that preclude board members from voting on employment decisions for relatives.
Simmons has said he recused himself from votes that might directly affect his wife.
The judge’s ruling is good news for Grizzle, who was up for re-election this year and will be able to qualify for his seat, said his attorney, Peter Olson of Cartersville.
For Simmons, “there’s never been a way to get his job back, and he recognized that,” Olson said.
“He just wanted help others not suffer the same fate,” Olson said. “He’d have an opportunity to run again, but this doesn’t put him in a posture, obviously, to take his seat back.”
“(Simmons’) interest was just making sure a bad law got knocked off the books,” Olson said.
Simmons was out of town and unavailable for comment.
It remains to be seen whether the judge’s ruling will have an effect in four years when Simmons’ former seat will be up for election.
If the legislature takes no new action, then Olson will ask the judge to make a final ruling in the case known as summary judgment.
But this year the Georgia House and Senate passed a new bill which amends the nepotism law, making it applicable only to relatives of school employees who were hired after July 2009.
If that law goes into effect, it would not apply to either Grizzle or Simmons.
Olson hopes the legislature scraps the bill as currently written.
“I would hope the General Assembly would look at this (order) and see we need to do something about this language, that it’s not going to pass court muster,” he said.