U.S. appeals court says Carl Lewis may run

Posted: September 13, 2011

Olympian Carl Lewis on Tuesday won his legal fight to run for the New Jersey Senate.

A federal appeals panel bucked lower court rulings and found Lewis, a Democrat, eligible to run in the Eighth Legislative District - 56 days before the election, two days before the deadline to print ballots, and hours before the cutoff to notify the state of a candidate vacancy.

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and the Burlington County GOP have contended for months that the track-and-field gold medalist did not meet the state constitution's four-year residency requirement to run for Senate.

"The state has failed to demonstrate a compelling state interest in the application of this durational residency requirement to this particular candidate," wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro in the 2-1 decision by a Third Circuit panel just hours after hearing the case in Philadelphia.

"We've always maintained that Mr. Lewis has met the residency requirements," campaign manager Chris Walker said. "He's very proud to be here in New Jersey, living here, and we're looking forward to continuing to campaign and put the decision in the hands of the voters."

Chris Russell, a spokesman for the Burlington County Republicans, described the ruling as a "miscarriage of justice."

The appellate judges "ignored long-standing legal precedent and tossed aside New Jersey's constitution," he said in a statement. "Their decision effectively eliminates residency requirements to run for office in order to allow a wealthy celebrity on the ballot."

Russell added that Republicans were considering their legal options.

Lewis, 50, is a Willingboro native who has spent most of his adult life in Texas and California. He purchased two condos - for himself and his mother - in 2005 in Mount Laurel and bought a home in Medford in 2007. But he paid income taxes through 2008 in California and voted there as recently as May 2009, even while maintaining substantial ties to New Jersey through his foundation and volunteer efforts.

In April, he announced his candidacy against Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego, a Republican who faced relatively easy reelection prospects in the GOP-leaning district, which spans parts of Burlington, Camden, and Atlantic Counties.

The entry of Lewis raised the ante, and Lewis quickly faced questions about his eligibility.

Local Republicans filed a legal challenge. An administrative law judge found it insufficient to determine that Lewis was not a resident of New Jersey. Guadagno, a Republican who also is secretary of state, then reversed the decision and refused to certify Lewis as a candidate.

The state appeals court sided with Guadagno, and the New Jersey Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Lewis filed a complaint claiming that his constitutional right to equal protection would be violated if he were barred from running for the Senate, and in May, the Third Circuit ordered Lewis' name onto the ballot for the June primary until U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman could rule on the residency issue.

Last week, Hillman upheld the state's decision. Tuesday's hearing was the final legal avenue for Lewis.

From the start, Ambro appeared skeptical of the challenges to Lewis' residency.

Ambro disputed the state's interpretation of the constitution to mean that a candidate must be a four-year resident as of election time, rather than by the time the candidate is sworn in. He noted that Lewis would take office in January 2012 if elected, more than four years after he bought the home in Medford.

He also questioned how Lewis' residency affected whether voters knew Lewis and he knew them.

"It's hard to say residents don't know about Carl Lewis," Ambro said.

Assistant Attorney General Donna Kelly repeatedly responded to Ambro's questioning by noting that other courts had ruled that Lewis did not meet the residency requirements.

She said that Lewis could run as an Assembly candidate, which carries a two-year residency requirement.

"There is no fundamental right to candidacy," Kelly said.

Mark Sheridan, a lawyer for Republicans challenging Lewis' campaign, argued that Lewis' vote in California in 2009 made him incapable of being a resident of New Jersey at the time.

William Tambussi, Lewis' attorney, emphasized that time was running out and residents needed a choice.

"We're getting close to the finish line and we have a right for the voters in the Eighth District to exercise their vote and have a meaningful choice," Tambussi told the appeals panel at the end of the hearing.

Lewis, who attended the hearing, will speak to reporters Wednesday morning in Westampton about the race.

"Carl has always stayed positive, and we're out walking and knocking on doors every day campaigning," said Walker, his campaign manager. "He never, ever changed course."

Contact staff writer Maya Rao at 609-989-8990, mrao@phillynews.com, or @Mrao_Inquirer on Twitter

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