No need to sleep in one's district Blount's 'residence' defined by his work, Appeals Court says

October 07, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Maryland's state legislators don't have to sleep in the electoral districts they represent -- they just have to work for the people who live there, the state's highest court said yesterday.

The Court of Appeals opinion is the long-awaited explanation of its Sept. 1 decision to place Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount back on the Democratic primary ballot after a lower court struck his name.

An Anne Arundel Circuit judge had said in August that Blount could not run for office from the 41st District because "overwhelming" evidence showed he did not live there.

The Court of Appeals acknowledged that Blount's apartment in Northwest Baltimore -- where there is no telephone and only a futon for Blount to sleep on -- is not his home. But, it ruled, that doesn't really matter.

"The requirement is that one must be domiciled in the district, and domicile is not synonymous with primary place of abode," the 29-page opinion written by Judge John C. Eldridge says.

Yesterday's opinion sparked controversy over the state's residency requirements. Several leaders said yesterday they expected efforts to change and clarify the law.

"We're going to have to pass a law to say, 'We really mean it,' " said House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican. "I'm sure that the great majority of people feel that you should live in your district To represent constituents, you should really live among them."

The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by former Del. Frank D. Boston Jr., who challenged Blount's residency before September's Democratic primary election. Boston -- who ran against the long-time lawmaker -- alleged Blount really lived in Pikesville. Blount later won the election by a landslide.

Neither Boston nor Blount could be reached for comment yesterday.

If the case provided the opportunity to clear up questions about the state's vague residency law, the ruling only clouded the issues more. Maryland law allows legislators to have several houses but only one legal residence -- or "domicile." That residence must be in the district that elects them.

The ruling appeared to give more currency to prior case law that said that if a lawmaker owns two houses, one way to prove which house is the domicile is the one he considers or intends it to be. "The ultimate question is still one of intent," the opinion says.

For Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College, that simply means Maryland has no residency requirement.

"Residency has always been the single most important qualification for legislative representation since the Colonial period. To equate that with simple intent, I think opens up a Pandora's box of potential misrepresentation," Smith said.

"It would seem all a candidate has to say is 'My home is in this district.' They have effectively, operationally, invalidated a residency requirement."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a political ally of Blount's, said the ruling was "a much more liberal interpretation" of the law than in previous cases. The ruling allows for extenuating circumstances to be considered in determining residency, he said.

The opinion states Blount has explanations for not sleeping at his official Copley Road "domicile" in Northwest Baltimore. His wife lives in Pikesville, and he needed her help in recuperating from surgeries, the court ruled.

Where the legislator works, votes and spends most of his time -- in this case his office -- is also important, Miller said.

"You can sleep in Rehoboth, if you want, at your beach house, as long as you go to your district office every day and you vote in your district," and pay taxes in your district, Miller said. "I think they are saying they are willing to look at the totality of circumstances."

George A. Nilson, Blount's attorney, said the residency requirement has always been broader than where a lawmaker sleeps. "The purpose of residency law is to require that you be familiar with the community you represent," Nilson said.

"What is more important to the residents of the 41st District? Where Clarence Blount, or whoever else is representing them, spends his waking hours or where he sleeps? When he's sleeping, he's not representing them."

Steven A. Allen, Boston's attorney, disagreed. He said that the ruling was a "novel departure" from Maryland law, which used to place more emphasis on a lawmaker's actual residence.

Pub Date: 10/07/98

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