Judge: Lawsuit can advance in Mississippi election dispute

AP News
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Posted: Jan 27, 2017 8:26 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Five voters can move forward with a lawsuit that claims their constitutional rights were violated when Mississippi lawmakers tossed out their ballots in a 2015 election, a federal judge ruled Friday.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ruled that the federal court lacks jurisdiction to decide the outcome of the state House race between Democrat Bo Eaton and Republican Mark Tullos.

However, Reeves said the five voters who filed suit can pursue their claim that their own constitutional guarantee of equal protection was violated.

Eaton, a farmer from Taylorsville, sought a sixth term in 2015 in a rural district south of Jackson. The race between him and Tullos, who's an attorney from Raleigh, went to a tiebreaker that Eaton won in a drawing of straws overseen by the secretary of state.

But weeks later, lawmakers tossed out some ballots that local officials originally said were properly cast. That made Tullos the winner and gave the GOP a three-fifths supermajority in the House — a margin that means Republicans don't have to seek any help from Democrats to change tax laws.

The defendants in the lawsuit are Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn, the four Republican House members who recommended tossing out the ballots and the entire House of Representatives.

Reeves wrote that "through intentional elimination of their votes, defendants deprived each individual plaintiff of his or her civic voice not just for the 2016 legislative session, but also the 2017, 2018, and 2019 sessions, and any special session called during those years."

Reeves rejected legislators' assertion that they are immune from being sued. He said that although legislators cannot be sued over general policy decisions, they can be sued over a type of action that is "specific and relate to a single individual," such as deciding to toss out specific ballots.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .