Court of Appeals puts politics before justice in Blount case

September 06, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

FRANK BOSTON was robbed. There's no other way to put it.

Ellen Sauerbrey, according to her supporters at least, was victimized four years ago -- and denied the governorship -- in a daring, late-night stealth move at the ballot box, though they couldn't prove it. But last week's mugging of Mr. Boston took place in full public view -- and in broad daylight to boot.

Bold legal move

Mr. Boston, a Baltimore state delegate running for the state Senate, had gone to court to get the incumbent senator from that West Baltimore district, Clarence Blount, disqualified.

The reason? Mr. Blount doesn't make his home in the 41st District. He hasn't really lived there full time for more than a decade.

Sure, the senator rented a $375-a-month apartment there, but there's no telephone and not much furniture.

It serves basically as a mail drop, a legal fiction that meets the barest necessities of the state's residency requirements for candidates running for public office.

Mr. Boston exposed this as a sham.

All he got for his trouble, though, was the lasting enmity of Mr. Blount's political friends and allies.

An Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge rendered a learned and lengthy opinion upholding Mr. Boston's complaints. But the delegate -- as well as Judge Michael E. Loney -- had not reckoned with the state's appellate courts, which have been known occasionally to render politically attuned verdicts.

As the fictitious Mr. Dooley remarked: "No matter whether the Constitution follows the flag or not, the Supreme Court follows the election returns."

That was true 100 years ago when Finley Peter Dunne wrote it, and it remains true today. Judges are human. They can, indeed, be influenced by political happenings swirling around them.

Justice wasn't blind

In the Blount-Boston suit, the appeals court judges knew full well how important Senator Blount's continued presence in Annapolis is to Baltimore when the next redistricting takes place.

They knew the state's elected leadership badly wanted Mr. Blount to withstand this legal challenge.

And they also knew that the law regarding a candidate's legal residency was so muddled that a wealth of interpretations was possible -- depending on the political circumstances.

Two conflicting imperatives were at work here: Mr. Blount's significance to the city's future political clout in Annapolis versus what looks like an obvious case of a phantom residence that contravenes state law.

Based on Circuit Court testimony in the case, voters are, indeed, being deprived of an in-district representative who stays the night in that district.

Mr. Blount is a political commuter, driving into his city district to conduct his constituent and senatorial business while he makes his home in the county.

It may be true that "home is where the heart is," and that Mr. Blount's heart remains very much fixated on the well-being of the 41st District.

Still, except for some legal technicalities, he really doesn't live there any more.

In the city's interest

At the same time, Mr. Blount's work in Annapolis on behalf of his district and his city are deemed absolutely vital to Baltimore's ability to retain its influence.

The senator's senior status in the General Assembly and the respect he engenders will give him considerable muscle when the time comes to redraw legislative boundaries after the 2000 census.

Without him there, Baltimore would lose a pivotal player in its efforts to reshape the maps so the city's participation in shared districts is maximized to offset the continuing decline of the urban center's population.

The first imperative won out. That's not fair to Mr. Boston, who raised a valid point: Voters deserve -- indeed, expect -- to have legislators who sleep, eat and live among them. That's the whole purpose of a residency requirement.

Yet, in a world of compromises and pragmatism, it was deemed vital to overlook Mr. Blount's avoidance of this obligation so the city's broader interests could be served.

Democracy in action is never simple, and is sometimes downright messy. It is often wrapped in contradictions and ambiguities.

This is one of those instances.

Barry Rascovar is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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