A majority of justices on the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Mandy Gunasekara is not a certified Republican candidate for Northern District Public Service Commissioner and removed her from the August Republican primary ballot.
Justice Leslie King, writing for the majority, found that a lower court’s determination that Gunasekara did not meet the necessary citizenship requirements to run for the office was correct.
Six of the nine justices of the court unanimously voted to decertify Gunasekara, and the three justices from north Mississippi — Bobby Chamberlain, Josiah Coleman and Jimmy Maxwell – did not participate in the decision. No justice dissented.
At issue is a requirement in the state constitution and state law that candidates running for the three-member utilities regulatory board must be a citizen of the state at least five years before the date of Mississippi’s general election in November.
Gunasekara hails from the rural southwestern town of Decatur, but she worked in Washington, D.C., for several years, including a stint as chief of staff of the Environmental Protection Agency under the Donald Trump administration. She currently lives in Oxford.
Public records show that Gunasekara voted in Washington on Nov. 6, 2018. Mississippi’s general election this year is on Nov. 7, meaning she had a 24-hour window from her 2018 vote to become a Mississippi citizen.
“The record shows that on Nov. 7, 2018, Gunasekara owned a house in D.C., where her husband and children resided, and on which she received a homestead deduction,” King wrote. “Gunasekara paid income taxes in D.C. She had a full time job in D.C., had a D.C. driver’s license, and was registered to vote in D.C. Gunasekara renewed her car tag in D.C. at the end of October 2018.”
She and her attorney, former state GOP Director Spencer Ritchie, argued that her intent to move back to Decatur in 2018 should be the strongest factor in determining her citizenship. But the state’s highest court disagreed.
“I’m a fighter and a constitutional conservative,” Gunasekara said in a statement. “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.”
She has used all legal avenues available to her in state court, but she will likely seek further relief through the federal courts.
Gunasekara raised several constitutional issues in her briefs, including the belief that a “durational citizenship” requirement violates the 14th Amendment. She said in a statement to Mississippi Today that “relief would be sought through the United States Supreme Court.”
The race is now whittled down to two candidates: state Rep. Chris Brown of Nettleton and city of Tupelo administrator Tanner Newman.
Newman in a statement said that the court’s ruling changes little for his campaign and that he hoped all voters across north Mississippi support his bid for public office.
“Let there be no doubt – Mandy Gunasekara has a bright future in public service ahead of her,” Newman said. “I welcome all of Mandy’s supporters to find a home on Team Newman.”
Brown in a statement thanked Mandy for her work in the Trump administration and her campaign for the PSC. “While she may not be on the ballot in 2023, I plan to keep her America First fight alive.”
Brandon Presley, the current commissioner, is running for governor. There is no Democratic candidate in the race, so the winner of the August GOP primary will become the new commissioner for north Mississippi.
Gunasekara’s disqualification for the PSC stems from a peculiar string of events. Matthew Barton, a candidate running for DeSoto County district attorney, filed the residency challenge with the state GOP’s executive committee, which voted to keep Gunasekara on the ballot. Barton appealed the party’s ruling to circuit court, and Judge Lamar Pickard decided that she did not meet the residency requirement.
Barton’s attorney, Sean Akins, in a statement called the court’s ruling a “victory for free and fair elections where the true winners are the voters.”
“This suit was never about Ms. Gunasekara’s character but about whether she met the Constitutional requirements to run for that office,” Akins said. “While her heart may have been in Mississippi, her citizenship was in Washington, D.C.”
The Republican primary for the north Mississippi PSC race will take place on August 8.
Editor’s note on 5/11/23: This story was updated to include a quote from the attorney representing Matthew Barton.