A Few Queries About Commission Chairman Jeff Turner’s Residences & Domicile — and a Little Historical Perspective of this Thorny Issue in Clayton County Politics
By John R. Alston Trotter, EdD, JD
If there ever was a murkier law in politics than the misnamed “residency requirement,” I don’t know what it is. First of all, the judges sometimes come down on different sides of this issue, depending on whom they want to help or hurt. Just the facts, Jack. I just quickly read the AJC article yesterday about some questioning whether newly-elected Clayton County Commission Chairman, Jeff Turner, was truly elected or not, depending on where his domicile was at the time. The article had factual mistakes in it (perhaps I will deal with these later). I don’t recall “domicile” even being mentioned in the article.
I have had a little experience dealing with the murky issue of residency and domicile in the past. So, right off the top of my head, let me throw in my two cents worth.
There is a difference between residence and domicile. Judge Eugene Lawson who used to supervise elections in Clayton County and I used to have detailed and lengthy discussions about this issue. At one time, Judge Lawson kept telling me that school board candidates had to reside or more accurately have a domicile in the district for one year before the election. But, this isn’t what the law says, and he finally conceded to my view on this matter. The Georgia Statute says “lives in the district,” and it does not specify any particular length of time. Now, for Commissioner or Commission Chairman or any legislative seat, the requirement is to live “one year” in the district. But, is that one year before the November election or one year before the candidate takes office in January? This could make a difference in the Jeff Turner case.
What is the difference between “residence” and “domicile”? A residence is where you “stay” but “domicile” is where you “hang your hat,” so to speak. It is where you always intend to make your homestead. You can have many residences (see J. Charley Griswell, Mike Barnes, and other former Clayton County politicians who definitely had more than one residence) but only one domicile. You can be in the U. S. Marines and live all over the country and world, but can keep you domicile in Jonesboro where you haven’t actually spent the night in ten or more years. But, it is where you still legally cast your vote from (via mail). Some things do indeed make a declaration that you intended to change your domicile. One is where you vote. The other is homestead exemption declaration. If you claim that you domicile is DeKalb County but you vote in Spalding County, then your domicile is Spalding County. If you file a Homestead Exemption (you’re only allowed one) on a home of yours in Fayette County, then your domicile is Fayette County, despite the fact that you are working and “living” or “staying” in Cobb County for five straight years.
What, from my reading of the published article in the AJC, is Jeff Turner’s potential problem is filing a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy in, I believe 2011, in Federal Court using his Henry County address and filing for divorce using this same address. From the article, it looked like that he had changed his address with the Federal Bankruptcy Court, but failed to do so with the Henry County Court. The latter, I think, can be explained that since his soon-to-be ex-wife was still living in Henry County, he wanted the mail to come to that address. But, usually when couples are going through a divorce, they don’t trust each other with the other’s mail. But, this is not bright line standard of residency.
Where did Jeff Turner vote in 2010? This makes a big difference, I would think. But, where did file Homestead Exemption in 2011? The latter is a big problem. You can’t received tax benefits by filing Homestead Exemption (even with an estrange spouse) in one county and then claim that your domicile is in another county. That was the problem that now State Senator Valencia Seay had in 2002. I challenged her on this in court. The visiting senior State Superior Court Judge stated in open court that I had done an “excellent job” presenting the facts of the case and told me privately that “you could very well win this on appeal.” Usually, visiting judges (or sitting ones, for that matter) don’t like to take an election away from someone. I let it. I had made my point, I thought.
If I recall correctly, one of the key cases that I used in the Valencia Seay case was the Dismuke case, an old case in Georgia which appeared right on point in this matter.
Now this same Atlanta Journal-Constitution article conjured up the illegal removal of Norreese Haynes from the Clayton County Board of Education in 2008. Naturally, the AJC did not call this removal “illegal,” but it was. The AJC reporter, showing a total lack of depth in reporting, mistakenly stated that Haynes’s residence was investigated, and it was proven that he had not lived in his school board district for “two years.” Totally false. What happened was that then Chairperson Ericka Davis apparently couldn’t handle Mr. Haynes sudden popularity and favorable publicity on the school board (exposing the now infamous “land deal,” exposing the switcheroo on the attorney’s two contracts, calling for the removal of the “thugs” in the Clayton County Schools, etc.). She apparently had her buddy Eldrin Bell, who was Commission Chairman at the time, to have the Clayton County Police to “investigate” where Haynes “lived.” The Police went to the wrong house, his former residence in Morrow, and found that he was not “staying” there. No shit, Dick Tracy! Mr. Haynes had already moved. I called Eldrin Bell on his cell phone and told him that, but he told me that he was just doing what he was requested [by Ericka Davis] to do. In the next day or two, Eldrin Bell, presumably to cover his political ass, sent a letter to Ericka Davis (and it was copied to the other school board members), reminding her that he was requested to conduct this investigation of Norreese Haynes. By the way, Ericka Davis violated all of the so-called “standards” of SACS by unilaterally making this decision, without the approval of the school board.
Norreese Haynes had already moved to a house in Conley, a house at which I visited him and a house that he had already changed to his official residence with the school system itself. But, when people don’t want to know the truth, they will not find out the truth.
Furthermore, the only department or agency charged with determining the qualifications and residence of political candidates and office holders in Georgia is the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office. This office conducted an extensive investigation of Mr. Haynes’s domicile and concluded, in two published reports, that there was “no evidence” and “no sufficient evidence” that he had changed his domicile just because he was renting an apartment next to the Marietta Campus of Phoenix University where he was attending classes. In fact, the Georgia Statute explicitly states that when a student moves to “stay” or “live” near or on a college campus that this does not change his or her domicile. Mr. Haynes continued to pay for rent at his Conley home. He had his utilitiy bills, etc., to prove that he continued to live there, that it was his “domicile.” I joking told Mr. Haynes that apparently it was O. K. for Clayton County’s white politicians to have more than one residence (and a single domicile) but problematic for black politicians to have the same.
The Georgia Statute explicitly states under no circumstances shall an elected official be removed from office without “judicial determination.” Judge Deborah Benefield demonstrated her lack of integrity and judicial mettle in this case. Instead of simply (sua sponte) telling the Clayton County Board of Education that it had to take Norreese Haynes back on the school board after he sued the school board on the matter, she went around her ass to get to her elbow, apparently trying to figure out how she could rule against Mr. Haynes. She stated, quite incredibly, that he sued the wrong party. Oh really? He sued the actual culprits, viz., the board members who voted to illegally remove him and the school board itself. Why would he sue Annie Bright, the Elections Registrar? She did nothing to him. She didn’t remove him? Had he sued Annie Bright, then this weasling judge would have ruled again that the sued the wrong party.
Preston Haliburton clearly stated in open court that this action could not take place, according to the Georgia law, “without judicial determination.” In the local media, Mr. Haliburton rightly stated that Mr. Haynes had the facts on his side and had the law on his side, but he wasn’t sure if he had the judge on his side. He didn’t. This case has to rank as the nadir in the rather speckled judicial career of Deborah Benefield. It definitely earns her a chapter in the to-be-published book, Profiles in Cowardice. By the way, it appears that this courtroom episode with Preston Haliburton got under Deborah Benefield’s skin. She seems to still have a grudge against him. I presume that she doesn’t like being “bested” in the courtroom. Ha!
Now back to Jeff Turner. Can he have more than one residence? Sure. He can have the address at his father’s (I think that this was mentioned in the AJC article), the Riverdale apartment, the Henry County house, a house on Lake Oconee, a cabin in Union County, a house on Ponte Verde, Florida, an apartment down here in Rio de Janeiro, and even a boathouse on the Savannah River. But, one has to constitute his “domicile.” You can only legal run from office in your “domicile,” the place where you “hang your hat.”
What will be the magic date? January of 2013 or November 6, 2012? I think that courts in Georgia have ruled both ways. If the date is November 6, 2012, and Chairman Turner filed his Homestead Exemption (which determines our residence “for all legal purposes,” I think this is how the case law reads, if I remember accurately) after this date, then this is problematic for Mr. Turner. But, aren’t all challenges rendered moot if they are beyond 30 days from the person becoming a candidate – or is that from the time of the election or the time of taking office?
Personally, I don’t think that Chairman Turner will be removed from office. If he is removed, however, then all of the three-vote decisions would have to be rescinded, including the termination of Wade Starr’s contract as County Manager. My prediction is that Jeff Turner will weather this storm.
Norreese Haynes was making too much noise on the school board, according to the thinking of some. I had an influential politician tell me that the powers-who-were at the time were determined to get Mr. Haynes off the board. He was talking about stuff that might have been a little embarrassing to some folks who had been making some money off the school system. He had access to the media. Richard Belcher of WSB TV2 interviewed him for two nights on the now infamous “land deal.” This was land that had been sold to the school system by Gwinnett County developer John D. Stephens, apparently one of Eldrin Bell’s political financiers. On one day alone, Norreese Haynes turned down interviews from local network channels 2, 5, 11, and 46 as well at Fox National News (Bill O’Reilly). In the opinion of some, Haynes had to be stopped, evidently. But, shortly after his illegal removal from the school board (action which, by the way, reminded one of the Wild, Wild West), Chairperson Ericka Davis first and former Vice Chairperson Eddie White next abruptly resigned from the school board. Vice Chairperson Rod Johnson announced that he would be resigning but he never did. But, he and the remaining school board members (even those who did not vote to illegally remove Norreese Haynes from the school board) were removed from the Clayton County Board of Education by Governor Sonny Perdue in the same 2008 year. © January 23, 2013, Sao Goncalo-Niteroi, Brazil.