U.S. District Judge Leslie Abrams Gardner attracted considerable criticism when she declined to recuse herself from a challenge over voter eligibility. Gardner is the sister of Stacey Abrams who has led the effort to register voters in the state. Many felt it was inappropriate for Gardner to rule on the case, a concern that was magnified by her quick rejection of a purging of the rolls of roughly 4000 inactive voters. Now, it appears that Gardner has not recused herself but did reverse herself. A new order has issued upholding the purge in the face of an appeal.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger took issue with the original order as fundamentally wrong as to the applicable Georgia election laws.
The new order is a substantial rollback on the original order and the change was praised by Raffensperger’s office. It will allow the requirement of provisional ballots from those voters. Gardner however directs that no challenges to their eligibility be upheld based exclusively on data in the National Change of Address Registry, which Democrats have challenged as unreliable.
At a time of heightened tensions over election integrity, Gardner’s decision not to recuse herself fueled further uncertainty. Stacey Abrams’ organization Fair Fight donated $2.5 million to Senate Majority PAC. That is the group which used Majority Forward as its nonprofit arm, and the donation was the largest to Senate Majority PAC since the November election.
So Gardner is ruling on an issue closely associated with her sister and originally ruled in favor of the group which lists her sister’s organization as its largest contributor. At a minimum, that creates an appearance of a conflict. I can understand Judge Gardner’s view that there is no real conflict. These two very successful women continue to work in the same state. Judge Gardner may have been concerned that a recusal would encourage endless such challenges over tangential links to her sister’s work. Yet, she could have recused while stressing that this is a unique time and a unique set of circumstances. A recusal could have been simply a recognition of the court that her familial tie could undermine confidence in the review.