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State House candidate’s eligibility hearing set for July
Court will decide whether new citizen Maria Palacios is able to seek office
Maria Palacios 2018.jpg
Maria Palacios

A hearing to determine whether new American citizen Maria Palacios is qualified to run for state office in Georgia is set for July in Fulton County Superior Court.

Palacios signed up to run as a Democrat in Georgia House District 29 in Gainesville. She was running unopposed in the May primary until Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office jumped in with a surprise announcement days before the primary: Palacios wasn’t qualified to run for office.

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The secretary of state argued Palacios can’t run for a state seat because she became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2017, citing state law: “At the time of their election, the members of the House of Representatives shall be citizens of the United States, shall be at least 21 years of age, shall have been citizens of this state for at least two years, and shall have been legal residents of the territory embraced within the district from which elected for at least one year.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia is fighting the decision in the Fulton court, arguing that “citizen of this state” merely means that someone must have lived in Georgia for at least two years, as Palacios has.

Palacios was allowed to participate in the primary election because early voting had already begun by the time she was ruled ineligible May 18, only four days before the primary. As a result, the lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials secured her party’s nomination with the May 22 primary.

But whether she’ll make it to the Nov. 6 general election has yet to be decided.

Fulton Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall has agreed to expedite the appeal, which will be heard in the Atlanta court July 18. Briefs from both sides will be filed with the court by June 22, according to an order from Schwall.

Having the case settled in Superior Court before August will allow time for an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court before general election ballots are printed in mid-September.

If the courts side with Palacios and the ACLU, her name will appear on the November ballot for the seat along with incumbent state Rep. Matt Dubnik, a Republican, and independent challenger Nancy Stead, a retired doctor.

Both sides agree that the case is relatively straightforward, hinging on the term “citizen of this state.”

The secretary of state doesn’t dispute Palacios has been a Georgia resident since 2009, but argues that because she wasn’t a U.S. citizen at the time, she hasn’t been a “citizen of this state” for at least two years.

In his order disqualifying Palacios, Kemp and state attorneys cite a 1984 opinion from then-Attorney General Michael J. Bowers.

Asked whether a person must be a naturalized citizen of the United States to qualify as a citizen of Georgia or one of its counties, Bowers wrote it was his official opinion “that a person must be a citizen, either natural born or naturalized, of the United States and must reside within the state in order to be a citizen of the State of Georgia.”

The ACLU has noted the Georgia Supreme Court has never weighed in on the question.

Palacios’ appeal could have far-reaching effects on Georgia politics by cutting down the amount of time naturalized citizens must wait before running for office.

“We have so many newly naturalized citizens who are eager to participate in the political process and run for office,” said ACLU Legal Director Sean Young, who is representing Palacios.

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