Disqualified candidate suing to have name put back on Mississippi ballot — rest of state is watching

Published 6:33 am Monday, March 1, 2021

One Mississippi man is suing to have his name put back on the ballot after a controversial state attorney general opinion halted his run for office even before his campaign started.

Other would-be candidates across the state — who also had their campaigns terminated suddenly — are watching closely in hopes that they, too, can have their campaigns resuscitated.

Zach Grady, a Republican candidate for Ward 3 council in D’Iberville, has filed a petition to get his name back on the ballot before the April 6 election. He was disqualified under the opinion issued Feb. 1 by Attorney General Lynn Fitch. The opinion was written by Phil Carter, special assistant attorney general.

The opinion directly contradicted advice the secretary of state’s office had been giving candidates and election clerks for months.

Under a 2019 law, candidates must have lived in the county or city they’re seeking to represent for two years before the election. The attorney general opinion concluded that they’re also required to have lived in the specific district, such as a ward, they’re seeking to represent.

Grady told the Biloxi Sun-Herald that he has been a D’Iberville resident his entire life.  Grady was an officer with the D’Iberville Police Department from 2010 to 2020 and has owned a home in the city for more than 10 years.

A little more than a year ago moved from Ward 4 to Ward 3.

Grady said he believes he is a qualified candidate and that his name will be put back on the ballot. A hearing could be held March 11 or 12, said Malcolm Jones, a Pass Christian attorney representing Grady.

Hinds County retired judge Judge Jeff Weill was appointed by the Supreme Court to hear the case.

Secretary of State Michael Watson has criticized the AG opinion after telling candidates and municipal clerks across the state that the residency requirement didn’t apply to wards.

“We are all extremely concerned about the impact this will have on candidates who have spent their time, money and other resources on campaigns that will come to a screeching halt due to this opinion,” Watson told the Northeast Daily Journal at the time. “The timing of this opinion, issued just days before the qualifying deadline, is inexcusable.”

The attorney general’s office has defended their process.

“In this case, though the law has been in effect since 2019, and though the Attorney General’s Office suggested throughout 2020 to organizations and officials that called to ask questions about this new law that they request an official opinion, the Attorney General’s Office did not receive an official request until recently,” Communications Director Colby Jordan said in a statement. “It was important to the Attorney General’s Office to ensure that the request went through the proper research and vetting process and get it out before the deadline.”

According to the attorney general’s office, Rob Roberson, representing the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors, made a request for an official opinion on Nov. 23, 69 days before the opinion was released.