Judge’s ruling an embarrassment for key Savannah city officials

Superior Court Judge Penny Haas Freesemann’s ruling in favor of Ruel Joyner can only be read as a huge embarrassment for all the Savannah city officials involved with the challenge to Joyner’s residency.

I’ll include clickable and expandable thumbnails of the pithy 4-page ruling in this post.

Page 1 simply notes the basics of the case, with Ruel Joyner as the Appellant vs. Dyanne Reese (Clerk of Council) and Kenneth Dunham (the West Savannah resident who challenged Joyner’s candidacy) as the Appellees. The footnote on page 1 notes that Dunham made “no appearance or argument” but that he was present in the gallery.

Page 2 continues to set forth the basic facts of the case but notes that Dunham’s status as an “elector” was never established: “the record is devoid of any evidence that Mr. Dunham possesses the requisite qualifications and registration for voting, and thus for bringing a challenge.” The “Legal Analysis” makes the basic finding that “despite Appellee Reese’s argument that O.C.G.A. 21-2-6(c) authorizes her to expand the record by independently researching and making findings without either additional hearing or opportunity for the candidate to be heard, the court disagrees.” In other words, if Reese was going to gather evidence not presented at the initial hearing on September 29th, she was obligated to allow Joyner to respond to that evidence. The result was “to deprive the candidate of basic due process.”

The “Legal Analysis” continues on Page 3 and Page 4. Since due process was denied, the only evidence that Freesemann considered was the evidence presented at the September 29th hearing. I’ll bullet the judge’s specific findings:

  • “it is clear that the superintendent’s ruling is in violation of Appellant’s due process rights.”
  • “it does not appear that Appellee Dunham’s status as an elector was established prior to the onset of the challenge.”
  • “once the challenge was accepted, the hearing itself was based upon the false premise that Appellant was the party with the burden of proof.”
  • “the minutes of the actual hearing indicate it was conducted without regard to rules of evidence, meaning the offered evidence was presented with little or no foundation.”
  • “it is apparent that the final ruling was premised upon a variety of information and documentation that is not part of this record, and to which Appellant was not privy at the time of the hearing, and therefore to which he could not respond.”

The final paragraph on Page 4 is worth quoting at length — with some added emphasis in bold. Judge Freesemann found that “the findings, inferences, conclusions, and decisions of the superintendent are 1) in violation of the Constitution and laws of this State; 2) clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the whole record; and 3) arbitrary and capricious and characterized by an abuse of discretion and a clearly unwarranted exercise of discretion.

Time to ask a few hard questions:

Why did the Clerk of Council think she had such broad discretion and did not have to allow Joyner to speak to the evidence she gathered independently?

What advice if any did the City Attorney give to Reese before the hearing, after the hearing, or as she was crafting her ruling?

Why did the City Attorney James Blackburn and lawyer Peter Guisti even let this go before a judge when Joyner’s case was so overwhelming?

I didn’t really know what to expect from Freesemann’s ruling, but I thought Joyner would probably come out the victor.

I certainly didn’t expect the findings to be such an embarrassment to the city administration. Both the City Attorney and the Clerk of Council work directly under the City Council.