Tuesday, September 26, 2023
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Justices turn down ex-Trump official vying to join Mississippi commissioner race

It's not enough to be born and bred in the Magnolia State; you have to have lived there for the last five years to run for certain types of office. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court declined Friday to help a former Trump official skirt procedural hurdles keeping her from joining the Republican primary ballot for Mississippi public service commissioner. 

Mississippi’s public service commission has three members that are elected every four years from three districts. Those commissioners are required to be a citizen of Mississippi for five years before the general election. 

Amanda Gunasekara wanted to run for a seat on the commission but was blocked because of her tenure working for the federal government in Washington. She asked the high court for emergency relief. The application — submitted to Justice Samuel Alito and referred to the full court — was denied this morning without an explanation. There were no noted dissents. 

Born and raised in Mississippi, Gunasekara made the decision to move north to the nation's capital in 2010 after graduating from law school. Gunasekara began work in Congress — first in the House of Representatives and then the Senate — but ended up at the Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump administration. 

For eight years Gunasekara resided in Washington. While she says she never considered the city her home, she had no concrete plans to return to Mississippi during that time until the summer of 2018. Her parents purchased a home for her near their farm in Decatur, but she remained in Washington — even voting in the city for a friend running for an advisory neighborhood committee. 

Gunasekara eventually resigned from her EPA post in February 2019, at which time she incorporated a nonprofit company in Mississippi. Gunasekara officially moved to Decatur in June 2019 but until then was commuting in from Washington. 

She then began commuting in the opposite direction in March 2020 when she took a job as the EPA's chief of staff. Once the Biden administration began in 2021, Gunasekara left the agency and moved into a new house in Oxford, Mississippi. 

Gunasekara announced her intention to run for a position on the commission in 2022, only to have her qualifications come into question through a challenge from Matthew Barton, a candidate for Desoto district attorney. 

The Executive Committee of the Mississippi Republican Party initially denied Barton’s contest, certifying Gunasekara as a candidate, but a state court that reviewed the matter opted to disqualify her. The court found Gunasekara had maintained her Washington residence on Nov. 18, 2018 — the date she’d need to have be a Mississippi resident to meet the commissioner residency requirement. 

The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed Gunasekara’s disqualification without tackling her claim that the state-law residency requirement violated the 14th Amendment. 

Turning to the Supreme Court for emergency relief, Gunasekara argued there was a good chance the justice would grant a review of a certiorari petition on the questions presented by her case so she should be given an injunction. 

“Without that intervention, a well-qualified candidate will be wrongfully excluded from consideration by the voters of Mississippi,” Christopher Mills, an attorney with Spero Law representing Gunasekara, wrote in her application. “The respondent — who has no stake in this race — will suffer no harm, and the public interest is in vindicating important First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.” 

Gunasekara argues the five-year citizen requirement should not bar her from running for office because she lived in the state for over two decades prior to her Washington residency. 

“Applying a five-year citizenship requirement to bar someone who has lived in Mississippi for 21 years from running for office cannot satisfy any form of the heightened scrutiny that should apply to such a restriction on citizens’ right to vote and candidates’ right to travel interstate,” Mills wrote. 

Barton opposed the emergency application, questioning why Gunasekara failed to raise the constitutional issues earlier. 

“The candidate now claims that an emergency exists because the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to consider her constitutional argument due to a procedural rule,” B. Sean Akins, an attorney with Akins & Adams representing Barton, wrote in his brief. “This claim is a red herring designed to create a constitutional claim where none exists.” 

The list of qualified candidates for commissioner is given to the state secretary of state on Friday, and the sample primary ballot is published on June 19. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Employment, Government, National, Politics

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