State Supreme Court rules against Gunasekara in residency appeal
A Mississippi Supreme Court ruling Thursday will apparently keep Mandy Gunasekara’s name off the August Republican primary election ballot. The decision means there will be only two names on the ballot, Tanner Newman of Tupelo and state Rep. Chris Brown (R-Nettleton).
The state Supreme Court ruled that Gunasekara does not meet the five-year residency requirement for her to be eligible for the ballot. The 26-page ruling, posted on the Mississippi Supreme Court website, affirms the ruling of the Hinds County Circuit Court that Gunasekara was unable to meet the requirements.
Gunasekara, a former Environmental Protection Agency Special Advisor and Chief of Staff in the Donald Trump administration, had her residency originally challenged by Hernando attorney Matthew Barton, himself a Republican candidate for DeSoto County District Attorney.
Barton’s claim was that Gunasekara, with her work in Washington, D.C., did not reach the five-year residency to be on the primary ballot against the two other opponents.
A candidate must have lived in Mississippi for five years ahead of election day. She said she had set up a residence in Oxford in time to meet the deadline, but records indicated she still had residency in the District of Columbia, which called her into question.
In her arguments before the Supreme Court, Gunasekara brought a question of the requirement’s constitutionality, which the Court’s ruling acknowledges should be addressed, but not at this time.
“Although Gunasekara argues that she is attacking the constitutionality of the statute as it was applied in this case, Gunasekara’s arguments attack the five-year residency requirement as a whole,” the ruling stated. “Resolution of this issue is of broad public importance. Accordingly, as a matter of public policy, the attorney general should be given an opportunity to argue the question of constitutionality. Therefore, we decline to address the issue at this time.”
Constitutionality was a point Gunasekara referred to in her reaction to DeSoto County News on the ruling, sent to us in an email.
“I’m a fighter and a constitutional conservative,” Gunasekara said. “I’m assessing all my legal options. The Mississippi Supreme Court acknowledged the potential unconstitutionality of this provision, yet found a convenient, procedural mechanism to avoid a decision on the merits. I believe the voters of Mississippi deserve a ruling on the merits.”
Barton, who originally brought up the question of Gunasekara’s residency to the state Republican Executive Committee, has also questioned the residency of his own Republican primary opponent, DeSoto County District Attorney Bob Morris. It’s an issue not for this election, but possibly for the next one should Morris run for re-election.
Morris moved from Batesville to Hernando when he was appointed as new District Attorney by Gov. Tate Reeves last September, but Barton has questioned if Morris did so in time for the five-year requirement to be satisfied.
Morris is grandfathered in for this election because he was appointed.
“Election integrity includes not moving to an area just for election purposes,” Barton said in reaction to the court’s decision. “That goes for Mandy and my own opponent who moved to DeSoto County just to run for office. Today’s decision is a victory for free and secure elections, where the true winners are the residents of North Mississippi. This case was never about Mrs. Gunasekara’s character, but rather about upholding the law.”
Barton’s challenge was originally dismissed when brought to the Republican Party Executive Committee, but he appealed that decision to special appointed judge Lamar Pickard, who ruled that Gunasekara had not established Mississippi residency by Nov. 7, 2018, five years ahead of the date of the general election in 2023.
Gunasekara claims that, even though she worked in Washington, her residence has always remained in Mississippi, Oxford in particular.
In making its ruling, the Supreme Court also said it would not allow a motion for a rehearing and the opinion is to be considered final in all respects.
Chief Justice Michael Randolph, Presiding Justice James Kitchens, and Associate Justices Dawn Beam, David Ishee, and T. Kenneth Griffis all concurred in the ruling. Justices Josiah Coleman, James Maxwell, and Robert Chamberlin did not participate, possibly because they all represent the north Mississippi area affected by the ruling. Chamberlin is from Hernando.