ATLANTA (AP) — A judge in Georgia on Friday found that U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is qualified to run for reelection, concluding that a group of voters who had challenged her eligibility failed to prove she engaged in insurrection after taking office. But the decision will ultimately be up to Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
Before reaching his decision, state Administrative Law Judge Charles Beaudrot held a daylong hearing in April that included arguments from lawyers for the voters and for Greene, as well as extensive questioning of Greene herself. He also received extensive briefing from both sides.
State law says Beaudrot must submit his findings to Raffensperger, who has to decide whether Greene should be removed from the ballot.
Raffensperger is being challenged by a Trump-backed candidate in this month's GOP primary and would likely face huge blowback from right-wing voters if he was to disagree with Beaudrot's finding.
A Raffensperger spokesperson said in an email that the secretary of state had received Beaudrot's recommendation and "will release his final decision soon."
The challenge to Greene's eligibility was filed by voters who allege the GOP congresswoman played a significant role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot that disrupted Congress' certification of Joe Biden's presidential election victory. That puts her in violation of a seldom-invoked part of the 14th Amendment having to do with insurrection and makes her ineligible to run for reelection, they argue.
During the April 22 hearing on the challenge, Ron Fein, a lawyer for the voters who filed the challenge, noted that in a TV interview the day before the attack at the U.S. Capitol, Greene said the next day would be "our 1776 moment." Lawyers for the voters said some supporters of then-President Donald Trump used that reference to the American Revolution as a call to violence.
"In fact, it turned out to be an 1861 moment," Fein said, alluding to the start of the Civil War.
Greene is a conservative firebrand and Trump ally who has become one of the GOP's biggest fundraisers in Congress by stirring controversy and pushing baseless conspiracy theories. During the recent hearing, Greene was questioned under oath. She repeated the unfounded claim that widespread fraud led to Trump's loss in the 2020 election, said she didn't recall various incendiary statements and social media posts attributed to her and denied ever supporting violence.
Greene acknowledged encouraging a rally to support Trump but she said she wasn't aware of plans to storm the Capitol or to disrupt the electoral count using violence. Greene said she feared for her safety during the riot and used social media posts to encourage people to be safe and to remain calm.
The challenge to her eligibility is based on a section of the 14th Amendment that says no one can serve in Congress "who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress ... to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same." Ratified shortly after the Civil War, it was meant in part to keep representatives who had fought for the Confederacy from returning to Congress.
Greene "urged, encouraged and helped facilitate violent resistance to our own government, our democracy and our Constitution," Fein said, concluding: "She engaged in insurrection."
James Bopp, a lawyer for Greene, argued that his client engaged in protected political speech and was, herself, a victim of the attack on the Capitol, not a participant.
Beaudrot wrote that there's no evidence that Greene participated in the attack on the Capitol or that she communicated with or gave directives to people who were involved.
"Whatever the exact parameters of the meaning of 'engage' as used in the 14th Amendment, and assuming for these purposes that the Invasion was an insurrection, Challengers have produced insufficient evidence to show that Rep. Greene 'engaged' in that insurrection after she took the oath of office on January 3, 2021," he wrote.
Greene's "public statements and heated rhetoric" may have contributed to the environment that led to the attack, Beaudrot wrote, but her statements are protected by the First Amendment right to free speech and expressing such political views, "no matter how aberrant they may be" before she was sworn in as a member of Congress does not amount to insurrection.
The challenge to Greene's eligibility to run for reelection was filed by five voters who live in her district, and the procedure for such a challenge is outlined in Georgia law. Beaudrot's decision is not binding on Raffensperger, who must determine if Green is qualified to run for reelection.
Once Raffensperger makes his decision, either side has 10 days to appeal it in Fulton County Superior Court. Raffensperger is facing a primary challenge on the May 24 ballot after he refused to bend to pressure from Trump to overturn Joe Biden's victory in Georgia. Raffensperger has decried the Capitol attack, writing in his book that he found it "highly objectionable" that "people are now trying to minimize what happened on January 6."
The Georgia complaint was filed by Free Speech for People, a national election and campaign finance reform group, on behalf of the five voters. The group filed similar challenges in Arizona and North Carolina.
Greene has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of the law that the voters are using to try to keep her off the ballot. That suit is pending.
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