Judge rules Saunders is eligible to run for Superior Court

Jackie Ricciardi/staff Juvenile Court Judge Willie Saunders discusses a case prior to a hearing on Friday, April 1, 2011.

A state administrative judge has ruled that Juvenile Court Judge Willie Saunders is eligible to run for a Superior Court judge position, according to an opinion filed today.

Judge Michael M. Malihi, with the Office of State Administrative Hearings, said although Saunders owes federal taxes, his plan to pay the IRS under a Chapter 13 bankruptcy settlement meets the standard for a payment plan required by state law.

A formal challenge to Saunders’ candidacy was filed in May with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office by Augusta attorney Jack Long. Long claimed that Saunders should not be allowed to challenge Chief Superior Court Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet for his seat in the Augusta Circuit because state law bars anyone who has defaulted on tax obligations from holding office.

Saunders, who filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy in Sep­tember, owed more than $159,000 to the Internal Revenue Service and entered into a payment plan with the court to satisfy part of that debt, according to federal court documents.

State law makes an exception for candidates “making payments to the tax authority pursuant to a payment plan,” but Long argued that Saunders’ payment plan did not qualify because it was not for the full amount.

Malihi’s said that Saunders’ payment plan was “sufficient” to meet the standard, affirming Saunders’ eligibility.

The judge’s opinion is not the last word, however. The final decision on Saunders’ eligibility belongs to Secretary of State Brian Kemp, said Kemp’s spokesman Jared Thomas.

“It is an initial decision, which is advisory,” Thomas said, explaining that Kemp could accept the judge’s decision or rule that Saunders is ineligible. He expects that decision to come in the next two to three days.

“It is an important case which he will be looking at very closely,” Thomas said.

Even if Kemp goes along with the judge’s ruling, the decision can still be challenged in Superior Court, something Long said he might do, even though the election is only two weeks away.

“By the time the court hears it the election will be over,” Long said. “It will be moot.”

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