A federal appeals panel took nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis off a New Jersey state Senate ballot Thursday, finding he does not meet the state’s four-year residency requirement after all.
The ruling in the topsy-turvy and politically charged case came nine days after the same three-judge panel from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Lewis should be on the ballot. But instead of issuing a full legal opinion, the court scheduled another hearing, which it held earlier this week.
And when its opinion came out Thursday, it was different than the earlier order:
“Lewis has failed to show that, as applied to him, the four-year state residency requirement for the office of state senator in New Jersey has treated him unequally,” the opinion said.
And in a footnote, the Philadelphia court gave the practical directive to the clerks’ offices in Atlantic, Burlington and Camden Counties: “The printing of ballots without Lewis’ name may proceed.”
It’s not clear whether it will be that simple.
Democratic officials could ask a court to halt the printing of ballots for two reasons: so they could challenge Thursday’s ruling or so they could nominate a replacement candidate.
Burlington County Democratic Committee Chairman Joe Andl said Thursday morning that his committee’s legal team would need to review the ruling before making a decision.
But they won’t have much time.
The legal deadline to begin sending out ballots to residents living overseas – including military personnel – is Friday. And ballots are to be sent to other voters within days.
In a statement, Lewis’ lawyer seemed resigned to the idea that the track star won’t be running for office this year.
“It is unfortunate that the voters of the Eighth Legislative District are being denied a meaningful choice in this election by today’s decision,” said William Tambussi. “The extreme measures taken by the Republican Party to keep Carl Lewis off the ballot truly do a disservice to the voters.”
The issue, which turned out to be more complex than it seemed, was whether Lewis satisfied a requirement that state senators live in the state four years before they take office.
Lewis, 50, grew up in Willingboro, N.J., went to college in Texas and settled in California.
In 1984, he was one of the big stars of the Olympic in Los Angeles, winning four gold medals in track and field. He would add five more over the next 12 years.
He bought homes in New Jersey in 2005 and 2007 and began working as a volunteer track coach at Willingboro High School. But he continued to pay taxes in California and voted there in 2009. He registered to vote in New Jersey only this year.
Secretary of State Kim Guadagno, a Republican who is also the lieutenant governor elected as Gov. Chris Christie’s running mate, removed Lewis from the ballot.
In its ruling Thursday, the court said that was the right decision.
Lewis and his supporters say it was a politically motivated move designed to keep the well-known Democrat from running against Republican incumbent Dawn Addiego in the 8th Legislative District, a reliably Republican area in the outer ring of New Jersey’s Philadelphia suburbs.
Lawyers for the state say they were just trying to enforce a residency requirement that’s been part of the state constitution since 1844.