Sandy Springs resident Josh McLaurin is eligible to run for the state House District 51 seat, a judge has ruled, rejecting a legal challenge to his residency.

McLaurin, a Democrat, is competing with Roswell Republican Alex Kaufman to replace retiring state Rep. Wendell Willard in the House seat. The challenge to McLaurin’s eligibility was filed in March by Gabriel Sterling, a former Sandy Springs City Council member and well-known Republican political consultant, and publicized by the Fulton County Republican Party.

Joshua McLaurin.

On April 30, administrative law judge Kimberly Schroer ruled that McLaurin is a resident of the district and eligible to run.

“I’m thankful for the judge’s decision,” said McLaurin in a press release. “This baseless challenge was a drain on time and resources, and with this favorable ruling, I’m ready to put partisan games behind me and focus on the concerns of District 51’s voters.”

Sterling said that Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp gets the final decision after hearing the judge’s administrative ruling, and believes the case still has merit “by all reading of the evidence.” He said the decision “is just the next step in the process.”

Vincent Russo, one of Sterling’s attorneys, said they “will decide soon whether to file any objection to the administrative law judge’s recommendations” to emphasize counterpoints to the Secretary of State’s office. In any case, Russo said, he expects Kemp’s decision to come before the May 22 primary election.

Trey Kelly, chairman of the Fulton County Republican Party, echoed those thoughts in a written statement. “We are surprised the [judge] made a recommendation that is inconsistent with the evidence, McLaurin’s own testimony and the law,” said Kelly. “We hope Secretary Kemp will take a hard look at the evidence and testimony in the case before making a final decision.”

McLaurin was represented by state Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta), who is also an attorney at the firm Holcomb & Ward. Holcomb called the case a “slam-dunk” and said that, while Sterling’s team has the right to appeal the ruling, “I’d be rather surprised if they do.”

“I don’t say this lightly – [If there’s an appeal] we’re going to win and we’ll win all day long,” Holcomb said.

McLaurin, an attorney, is a native of Georgia, with the residency complaint hinging on a brief period in 2015 and 2016 when he lived in New York City for a law firm job and his moves within the state since then. In late 2016, McLaurin announced a run for the 6th Congressional District seat eventually won by Karen Handel, but he did not actually enter the race. At the time, he was living in Roswell. He currently lives in Sandy Springs and announced his House District 51 campaign last fall.

Among the residency requirements to qualify as a candidate in the House race is residing in the district for at least two years. Holcomb acknowledged that McLaurin did not live in the district for a “massive amount of time” before the two-year requirement, but that he met it. And in the broader sense, Holcomb said, McLaurin is a Georgian.

“He’s not a New Yorker who moved to Georgia,” Holcomb said. “He was a Georgian all his life and took a job opportunity in New York to test it out,” then chose to return to the state.

Holcomb said he got involved in the case because he knew McLaurin and because an associate at Holcomb’s law firm was a Yale Law School classmate of the candidate. Holcomb said he took the case pro bono “because I know how hard it is to run for office.”

Update: This story has been updated with comment from Gabriel Sterling, Vincent Russo and Fulton County Republic Party Chairman Trey Kelly.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.