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Deciphering sheriff qualification laws

When the Muscogee elections board holds a meeting today to again review the qualifications of a sheriff’s candidate, it will focus on a state law that previously aroused little controversy.

That law, Code of Georgia Section 15-16-1, lays out the standards candidates must meet to seek the office, its stated intent to “improve both the capabilities and training of those persons who hold the office of sheriff.”

Nothing about the criteria set forth in the law is confusing or controversial. The issue is how candidates are required to prove they meet the standards.

On March 30, the elections board disqualified two Democrats, Pam Brown and Robert Keith Smith, for missing the deadline to submit fingerprints for a criminal background check. The board today is to consider whether the remaining Democrat, Donna Tompkins, punctually filed an affidavit swearing she met the standards.

The focus will be on three sections of the law numbered 1, 2 and 3, with subsections marked by capital letters.

Section No. 1 says no one can be sheriff unless the person:

▪  (A) Is a U.S. citizen.

▪  (B) Has been a county resident at least two years.

▪  (C) Is a registered voter.

▪  (D) Is at least 25 years old.

▪  (E) Is a high school graduate or equivalent in law enforcement training.

▪  (F) Has not been convicted of a felony or crime of “moral turpitude.”

▪  (G) Is fingerprinted for a criminal background check within three business days after qualifying ends.

▪  (H) Files a written history of residence for the past six years.

▪  (I) Files a written history of employment for the past six years.

▪  (J) Is a registered peace officer or certified police officer now or within six months of taking office.

The elections board found that Brown and Smith failed to meet the fingerprinting requirement lettered G, having submitted their fingerprints a day late.

Brown and her attorney, J. Mark Shelnutt, now challenge whether Tompkins complied with the law’s next section, No. 2, which states in part:

“Each person offering his or her candidacy for the office of sheriff shall at the time such person qualifies, swear or affirm before the officer before whom such person has qualified to seek the office of sheriff that he or she meets all of the qualifications required by this subsection … and that he or she has complied or will comply with the requirements of subparagraph (G) of paragraph (1) of this subsection no later than the close of business on the third business day following the close of the qualifying period.”

Shelnutt claims that though Tompkins submitted her fingerprints within the deadline, she did not swear that she met the standards of the law “at the time such person qualifies,” which was on March 7, when Tompkins paid her $2,593 qualifying fee to the Democratic Party.

That affidavit, which lists the qualifications noted by capital letters under section No. 1 of the law, is dated March 15. Tompkins said it was not in the packet the Democratic Party gave her when she qualified March 7.

Next comes section No. 3, which requires candidates to file a second affidavit within three business days after qualifying ends. That affidavit to be filed with the county elections superintendent requires the candidate to swear he or she (A) is a high school graduate or equivalent, and (B) to name the high school or other equivalent course of study, and to file a certified copy of his or her birth certificate.

One confusing aspect of this is the reference to two separate affidavits with different deadlines. Were the affidavit Tompkins submitted on March 15 the one referred to in section No. 3, then she made the deadline, which would have been March 16.

But if the affidavit she filed March 15 is the one in section No. 2, then she missed the deadline — at least in Shelnutt’s interpretation – because she should have filed it when she qualified March 7.