Friday, March 2, 2012
Court of Appeal Rejects Challenge to State Senator’s Residency
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
California courts lack jurisdiction to determine whether a member of the Legislature is qualified to serve, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
“The California Constitution vests in each house of the Legislature the sole authority to judge the qualifications and elections of a candidate for membership in that house, even when the challenge to the candidate’s qualifications is brought prior to a primary election,” Justice Louis R. Mauro wrote for the court.
“Under the facts presented in this case, California courts lack jurisdiction to judge Tom Berryhill’s qualifications to serve as a Senator for the 14th Senate district.”
The court affirmed Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy M. Frawley’s order denying relief in a suit brought by Heidi Fuller, who represented herself in the Court of Appeal.
Fuller was one of five candidates in the 2010 Republican primary in the district, which runs through Fresno, Madera, Mariposa, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Tuolumne counties. Berryhill won the primary with more than 67 percent of the vote—while Fuller finished fourth with a little over 5 percen—and went on to a similarly easy victory in the general election.
Fuller challenged Berryhill’s candidacy, citing Article IV, Sec. 2(c)of the California Constitution, which provides that “[a] person is ineligible to be a member of the Legislature unless the person is an elector and has been a resident of the legislative district for one year . . . immediately preceding the election.”
It was undisputed that Berryhill moved into the district just before he filed, having previously lived about a mile outside its borders. But election officials stopped enforcing the one-year residency requirement in the 1970s, based upon a pair of state Supreme Court decisions, and have since accepted the candidacies of any elector who was a resident of the district at the time of filing nominating papers.
Frawley rejected arguments by Berryhill and the secretary of state that the court lacked jurisdiction. He ruled that the Legislature’s constitutional authority to judge the qualifications and elections of its members did not preclude the court from determining whether the residency requirement “is unconstitutional in a pre-primary election review.”
On the merits, however, the judge applied strict scrutiny and concluded that the state lacks a compelling interest in discriminating between voters who have lived in the district for a year and those who have not, so the residency rule violates the Equal Protection Clause.
Lack of Jurisdiction
But Mauro, in his opinion for the Court of Appeal, agreed with Berryhill, the secretary of state, and the Legislature, which filed an amicus brief. The trial judge, he said, should have dismissed for lack of jurisdiction and avoided the merits.
The justice rejected Fuller’s effort to distinguish past cases in which the high court held that only the Senate and Assembly may determine challenges to the qualifications of candidates for election to those bodies. The fact that Fuller sued before the primary does not change the controversy into one that the courts can rule on, Mauro said.
“We hold that the California Constitution vests in the Senate the sole authority to judge Tom Berryhill’s qualifications to serve as a Senator for the 14th Senate district,” the justice wrote.
The case is Fuller v. Bowen, 12 S.O.S. 1054.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company