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Supreme Court to decide St. Louis senate seat challenge

Scott Lauck//June 13, 2012//

Supreme Court to decide St. Louis senate seat challenge

Scott Lauck//June 13, 2012//

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The Missouri Supreme Court will have to decide who is eligible to run for a state Senate seat in St. Louis, following a decision Wednesday by an appeals court.

The Court of Appeals Eastern District said in a 31-page opinion that it would hold that Jamilah Nasheed is ineligible to challenge Sen. Robin Wright-Jones in the Democratic primary for the newly drawn 5th District. The court, however, said that “because of the general interest and importance of the issues presented,” it was transferring the case to the Supreme Court.

Missouri’s legislative districts were recently redrawn to comply with the results of the 2010 census. Nasheed, who is currently a member of the Missouri House, lives in an area that, under both the current and the new Senate map, is part of the 4th Senate District. But during redistricting, a large portion of the former 4th District was added to what is now the 5th District. Most of Nasheed’s current House district is also in the new 5th District.

Generally, lawmakers must have been a resident of their district for at least a year before they are elected. But if districts are drawn less than a year before the election, the state constitution says candidates must reside in “the district or districts from which the same shall have been taken.”

Lawmakers have long held that provision to mean that, after districts are redrawn, they have the temporary option of running in any new district that encompasses part of the old district where they reside, even if their address isn’t within the boundaries of the new district. The Missouri Attorney General’s Office has given that interpretation in opinions issued in 1967 and 1982.

But last month, St. Louis Circuit Judge Joan Moriarty said that interpretation “would promote electoral district shopping.” She upheld a challenge by Wright-Jones, the 5th District’s incumbent senator, to Nasheed’s qualifications.

No appeals court has previously interpreted the exception to the residency requirement. But, the Eastern District said, the Supreme Court in 1992 considered whether the new districts were to be used in a special election that occurred before the general election. The high court said they were not, and the Eastern District took that to mean that it needed to look beyond the “bare words of the sole constitutional provision at issue” to determine its true meaning.

Chief Judge Kurt S. Odenwald wrote that to follow Nasheed’s interpretation “would allow legislators to represent constituencies of which they are not a part, and with whom they may have only a regional geographic connection.” Judge Sherri B. Sullivan concurred.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Clifford H. Ahrens agreed that the Supreme Court should decide the case but disagreed with his colleagues’ analysis, saying it read words into the constitution.

“It does seem reasonable to allow candidates some latitude in re-districting years, when boundary lines become moving goal-posts,” he wrote. “This interpretation prevents gerrymandering, while the majority’s interpretation invites it.”

The opinion comes less than a week after the case was argued on June 8. The same panel of judges heard a similar case the same day, Rochelle Walton Gray v. Sylvester Taylor, in which the trial judge had reached the opposite result and allowed the challenger to seek office in 75th House District, where he doesn’t currently reside. The Gray case remains pending in the Eastern District.

St. Louis attorney Elbert A. Walton Jr., who represents both Wright-Jones and Gray (and who is also Gray’s father), said it wasn’t clear why one case was decided and the other wasn’t. He said he always anticipated both cases ultimately would be decided by the Supreme Court. He also said the high court “will have to make a really, really, really fast move,” as the August primary is less than eight weeks away.

Nasheed’s attorney, Dave Roland, said he was confident that the Supreme Court would “get this correct.” He also said that allowing Nasheed to challenge Wright-Jones in the 5th District’s primary would ultimately just put the decision in the hands of voters.

The Eastern District’s opinion, Roland said, “demonstrates a remarkable lack of faith in the people themselves.”

The case is Wright-Jones v. Nasheed, ED98456.

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