TUPELO • A Senate committee chairman has blocked further consideration of legislation to clarify an ambiguous residency requirement even as litigation on the issue mounts across the state.
There are now at least four lawsuits in front of three different judges contesting the issue of just what exactly is required by a 2019 law that imposed a two-year residency requirement for local elections.
Litigation over candidate eligibility is ongoing. The first lawsuit was filed in D’Iberville, as previously reported by the Daily Journal. There is also a lawsuit in Pass Christian and two in Hattiesburg.
At the same time, legislation intended to dispel legal uncertainty has died in the Senate, with no apparent path to revive it before the session’s end.
House Bill 195, as amended, would have clarified current statute to require that candidates seeking election to a board of aldermen or city council need to have been residents of the city in question for two years prior to the election but do not need to have been residents of the ward they may be seeking to represent for two years.
Ongoing litigation cited
That bill passed the House, 110-6, and was sent to a pair of committees in the Senate for consideration. The Elections Committee approved it, but the chairman of the Municipalities Committee, Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, did not bring the bill up before a Tuesday deadline.
Simmons said he was concerned about the bill because its original language – which remained intact – would have allowed small municipalities to use only a single polling place during special elections.
He also expressed some hesitancy about weighing into the ongoing controversy about the interpretation of current law.
“That was one of the concerns as well. I didn’t legislatively want to get into the middle of pending litigation,” Simmons said.
The Greenville lawmaker said he had “no comment” as to whether he believes the current residency language applies to the municipality or to the ward.
The Secretary of State’s office and, informally, the Attorney General’s office had initially taken the view explicitly taken by HB 195: that only a two-year residency within the municipality itself was required, and local election officials were trained on that basis earlier this year.
Just days before the end of qualifying, however, an official but non-binding opinion from the Attorney General’s office took the opposite view. Some elections officials and candidates have been scrambling ever since.
What are the election lawsuits about?
Legislative inaction means that multiple state courts will have to decide the matter at hand – setting up the potential for different rulings from different judges.
Anthony Hall, an incumbent Pass Christian alderman, has filed a request for judicial review, saying that his opponent, Kirk Kimball III, a Republican, should not appear in the Republican primary because he does not meet necessary residency requirements.
Hall, a Democrat, said in the challenge that he filed a petition with the local Republican executive committee opposing Kimball’s appearance on the primary ballot, but his petition was denied by the committee.
Kimball has filed a response to the challenge, arguing that the court does not have jurisdiction to review decisions of the local GOP committee. He also opposes the assertion that he doesn’t meet residency requirements, noting that “any Attorney General Opinion is not binding upon the Court and is not the ‘law of the land.’”
In Hattiesburg, incumbent Ward 1 Councilman Jeffrey George, a Republican, filed an election challenge against the city’s Democratic executive committee for certifying his Democratic opponent, Kentrel Chambers.
In Hattiesburg’s Ward 4 race, Joseph Lanford also filed an election challenge against Bradley James Pope Parker and the city’s Democratic committee, alleging that Parker does not meet residency requirements.
As of Thursday night, neither Chambers or Lanford had filed a response to the election challenge.
The Daily Journal previously reported that a candidate in D’Iberville is also challenging the decision of the Republican executive committee to disqualifying him from his race.
With such a muddle of litigation and the potential for different outcomes in different jurisdictions, an attorney representing one of the Hattiesburg clients, Jeffrey George, expects appeals.
“I think this is all going to end up before the Mississippi Supreme Court no matter how the circuit judges rule,” said T. Michael Reed, an attorney in Hattiesburg.