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Simmons sues state over nepotism law
Ex-member's suit claims rights were violated in re-election bid
0122LAWSUITKelvin Simmons
Kelvin Simmons

Former Gainesville school board member Kelvin Simmons has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a state law that barred him from seeking re-election.

Simmons and Bartow County Board of Education Chairman Lamar Grizzle are plaintiffs in the suit against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp and the state election board.

Both men are challenging a law that went into effect last year barring spouses and other immediate family members of school administrators from serving on the same school system’s board of education.

Simmons, who had served on the city school board since 1991, is married to Gainesville Middle School Assistant Principal Audrey Simmons. Grizzle’s wife is an assistant principal in the Bartow County school system.

The anti-nepotism provision was included in a House bill that also addressed child enrollment options.

In the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Kelvin Simmons and Grizzle say the law is a violation of their First Amendment right to free association, or "ballot access," and their 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law.

The suit alleges the law likely prevents more than 10,000 Georgia residents with relatives who are school administrators from seeking a school board post.

Paul Olson, a Cartersville attorney representing Simmons and Grizzle, said Thursday the law violates "the right for someone to be a candidate and the right of the people to vote for the person of their choice."

Olson said a law meant to prevent nepotism should be more narrowly tailored by barring board members from voting in matters that might affect family members. Simmons has said he abstained from school board votes that could affect his wife.

The lawsuit also challenges the law on the grounds that the house bill violated a state constitutional prohibition against addressing two distinctly different subjects — in this case school choice and nepotism — in the same bill.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction that would allow Grizzle to qualify for re-election this year. Simmons was prevented from seeking re-election last year and would have to wait until his ward’s seat comes up for election again in 2013.

"Mr. Simmons has already suffered the harm," Olson said.

Olson said Simmons filed the suit "because he just feels (the law) is wrong and unfair. He’d been on the board since 1991. His wife was assistant principal, and he was elected time and again, so obviously it was not an issue with the voters."

Already a bill has been introduced in this year’s legislative session that would delete the paragraph addressing nepotism in the law, Olson said.

Daryl Robinson, a spokesman for Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, whose office is representing the state in the lawsuit, said standard policy prevented him from commenting on pending litigation.

A hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction has not been scheduled.

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