Chatham Co. Commission hopeful Tony Riley has first hearing on disqualified candidacy

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Tony Riley, the disqualified candidate in Chatham County’s District 2 Commission race, had his first appeal hearing Thursday.

On Tuesday his attorney, Will Claiborne, filed an appeal to overturn the Chatham County Board of Elections’ decision to disqualify him from running for the commission seat.

He also filed a temporary restraining order to bar election employees from posting signage saying his client is no longer in the race.

At the center of Riley’s case is a Georgia statute stating he can only be disqualified if his felony charge involves moral turpitude.

An Atlanta based civil rights attorney says the term is defined as a gross violation of standards of moral conduct or vileness.

“In Alabama, for example, the phrase ‘moral turpitude’ was adopted in order to disenfranchise African Americans,” said Bryan Sells, who specializes in voting rights and election law.

“It was thought that African Americans committed such crimes with greater propensity than whites, but it was kept vague so that it could be used selectively,” Sells added.

Riley’s charge was aiding and abetting a “conspiracy to distribute cocaine.” The attorney fighting his appeal says the higher courts already ruled on a similar case involving a man charged with theft and possession of methamphetamine.

“The Georgia Supreme Court has actually expressly held that conviction of a felony is one of moral turpitude and therefore the candidate is disqualified,” said Ben Perkins, who is representing the elections board.

Chatham County Superior Court Judge James Bass was clear in Thursday’s hearing, emphasizing that moral turpitude can take on different meanings depending on the context it’s used in.

“The only case where moral turpitude has been interpreted in an election context was a case of a guy who was federally convicted of moonshining,” said Claiborne, “and was allowed to stay on the ballot because it was determined that was not a crime of moral turpitude.”

Claiborne says a ruling on Riley’s appeal will take time, but the most pressing matter is signage that is set to be posted at every poll on Election Day. The signs would remind voters that Riley is no longer in the running to become the county’s District 2 commissioner.

“If we win our appeal, which we should, and Mr. Riley is seen to be a valid candidate, then those signs would cause him an irreparable harm,” said Claiborne.

The attorney says as of now these signs have not been put up at the polls. He says a ruling on the temporary restraining order could come as soon as Friday.

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