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Judge Dismisses Challenge To Williams Residency

Courtesy of Lindsey Williams for PA
Lindsey Williams will remain on the ballot after a Commonwealth Court judge dismissed a bid to remove her

A Commonwealth Court judge has tossed out a bid to remove state Senate candidate Lindsey Williams from the Nov. 6 ballot.

Republicans, however, say that may not be the last word. 

Williams’ candidacy was challenged by two voters, backed by a Republican lawyer, who said Williams had not been a resident of Pennsylvania at the time of the November 2014 election – a violation of a state Constitutional requirement that Senators have been a resident four years prior to their election.

But in a nine-page opinion issued just one day after briefs were filed in the case, Judge Michael Wojcik agreed with Williams’ attorney Chuck Pascal that the objections had been filed too late.

Typically, challenges to a candidate’s eligibility must be filed within seven days after a candidate’s petitions are filed – a deadline that elapsed in March. Republican attorney Ron Hicks argued that the deadline should be waived because Williams had perpetrated a fraud, but Wojcik disagreed.

He cited a 1952 state Supreme Court case with similar allegations. The court in that case found that the deadline could only be waived if the fraud continued to obscure the defect in the petitions.

Wojcik, a former Allegheny County solicitor who was elected as a Democrat in 2015, ruled that there was no sign that Williams had done anything to prevent a case from being brought within the seven-day deadline. “There is absolutely no allegation or proof … that such information could not have been discovered by the exercise of due diligence,” he wrote.

Williams hailed the ruling in a statement. "I am pleased that the Court dismissed this meritless case, as I expected it would all along," she said. "I am happy to move past this distraction and to return to focusing on how we can improve public education and healthcare and create quality jobs for Pennsylvanians."

Pascal said the ruling was “not exactly unpredictable."

“It’s still not March, I guess,” he said, referring to the introduction to his legal brief, which began by flatly asserting, "It's not March." The ruling proved that the case was a political stunt, he said. The court did exactly what it should have done. This was nonsense.”

Pascal noted that in a legal memo sent to Republican party leaders -- a memo first reported on by WTAE -- attorney Ron Hicks said there was "a reasonable basis to raise this issue in her campaign," because Williams had voted in Maryland in 2014 and didn't register in Pennslyvania until December of that year. That, Pascal suggests, shows that Republicans saw the case as a political effort rather than a serious legal case. 

Hicks contested that. "I was asked whether there was a legal basis for the issues. I wasn't asked whether lititgation should be filed." But he was, he noted, now the plaintiff's attorney. 

Hicks said he had to talk to his clients about their next moves, which could include an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

In any case, he noted that Pascal’s opposition to the filing focused entirely on procedural concerns, not the underlying facts. “She doesn’t dispute that she doesn’t meet the requirement. And there is no evidence she does meet it. ... This could have been easily resolved by her providing evidence that she lived in Pennsylvania on Election Day 2014.”

The state Republican Party picked up on that theme in a Wednesday-evening statement.

“In a disservice to the voters, and the community she seeks to represent, Lindsey Williams has remained silent about having any evidence that she meets the Constitutional residency requirement," the statement said. "This only casts further doubts about whether Lindsey Williams actually knows she does not meet the Constitutional standard."

The party said it was "seriously looking at appealing this issue." But it added that "the Senate of Pennsylvania might have to decide whether or not to seat her should she be elected despite her deception.”

Under the Pennsylvania Constitution, the Senate and House chooses leaders at the beginning of each new session, and each body "shall judge of the election and qualifications of its members," a provision Republicans say could result in Williams not being seated. 

State Senator Jay Costa, who leads the Senate Democrats, played down that possibility. "I think it's a threat that I would expect from them at this point. They want to create doubt in voters' minds, and I think that's all this is."

Duquesne University constitutional scholar Bruce Ledewitz agreed Republicans would be wary of taking such a step. He said he was unaware of a similar case at the state level, but predicted Williams could sue if Republicans refused to seat her -- and that the state Supreme Court would take up the matter.

"It's possible that they would decide this is a political question [outside judicial review] but I don't think so," he said. "Especially in this partisan climate, you can't give one party the power to expel members of the other party." And while the court's elected justices are mostly Democratic, "I can't see any Justice on the Supreme Court doing that. This might not be as partisan as you think."  The court might then undertake its own review of Williams' residency, he said.

It's not immediately clear how such a dispute would be handled. Costa and others said they could only recall one similar controversy in recent history: a 1994 dispute in which a federal judge removed a Democratic Senator from Philadelphia in a special election tainted by a conspiracy involving the use of absentee ballots.  

That was a much a different situation, Costa said, because the case involved the actual conduct of an election, rather than a residency challenge the court had found moot. Another difference: The balance of power in the Senate was at stake in 1994, whereas now Republicans hold a sizable majority. Still, Costa said, "Republicans will do whatever they can to hold onto the seat." 

Williams is running against Republican opponent Jeremy Shaffer in state Senate District 38, which includes North Hills communities and portions of the city's East End. The election is Nov. 6.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.