The increasingly heated debate over whether state Senate candidate Lindsey Williams is eligible to hold the office boils down to what might seem an obscure question: where she lived for a period of a few weeks nearly four years ago.
But there’s much more at stake in legal briefs filed Tuesday afternoon. Democrats are charging Republicans with ginning up an “October surprise” political stunt, while Republicans accuse Democrats of dodging the real issue.
Williams is running against Republican Jeremy Shaffer in the 38th state Senate district, which covers a swath of the North Hills as well as part of Pittsburgh's East End. But her residency was challenged last week by two voters in the district, backed by a Republican party lawyer. They note that Williams voted in Maryland for the November 2014 election and still had her car registered there shortly afterward. That, they say, violates a state constitutional requirement that Senators must have been a Pennsylvania resident four years prior to their election.
Williams’ attorney, Chuck Pascal, blasted the suit in a filing with the state’s Commonwealth Court on Tuesday.
“The Petitioners’ purpose was not legal – it was political,” Pascal's brief argues. Calling the effort “a proverbial ‘October surprise’ which would be covered by the media,” the filing says the petition “is a classic abuse of the legal system.”
Legally, Pascal's objection to the Republican effort boils down to a single sentence in the 10-page filing: “It’s not March.”
The brief notes that election law provides that nominating petitions are accepted as valid unless someone challenges them "within seven days after the last day for filing."
Williams filed her petitions prior to the Democratic primary, and the deadline for challenges was March 13. “The Petitioners have missed that deadline by 216 days,” Pascal's brief argues.
The brief acknowledges that in March, the plaintiffs in this case, a registered Republican and an independent, would not have had “standing” – the right to challenge the petitions filed by a candidate in a Democratic primary. But it adds that lawyers in both political parties are adept at finding voters on the other side of the aisle to serve as plaintiffs.
Removing Williams from the ballot now, it argues, would deprive voters of a choice and disrupt the election itself.
Amie Downs, a spokeswoman for the county, told 90.5 WESA last week that voting machines have already been programmed and that absentee ballots have been printed with Williams’ name.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Ron Hicks, who often works for Republican causes, touched lightly on the timing issue in his own 24-page brief. Much of the filing repeated the case for questioning whether Williams meets the residency requirement: her voting in Maryland in 2014, and a speeding ticket she paid that November which showed her residence and vehicle registration in Maryland.
Williams registered as a voter in Pennsylvania in December of 2014, and has said she accepted a job in Pittsburgh before that year's election.
But the brief notes that Williams had yet to “offer any evidence of her having on November 6, 2014, a physical presence at a Pennsylvania residence."
“Rather than submit one iota of supporting evidence to prove that she meets the four-year residency requirement, Williams instead contends … that this Court and the electorate should overlook her fraud simply because the election is two weeks away.”
Hicks’ brief argues that the usual time limits do not apply, because Williams committed fraud by signing an affidavit that said she was eligible to hold the office. Fraud is among the “extraordinary circumstances” that can waive the limits, it argues.
“This court should not permit Williams’ fraud to continue to Election Day," it argues.
It remains to be seen whether Commonwealth Court will agree. It is not clear which judge on the nine-member panel will decide the case. The timetable for doing so also isn't clear – although courts tend to act promptly on election-related challenges.
Preliminary objections, like the one Pascal filed, often raise procedural concerns without addressing underlying claims. And judges typically interpret election law with an eye toward allowing voters a choice in candidates.
Pascal’s brief cites a 1952 state Supreme Court decision in which a candidate similarly alleged fraudulent petitions filed by a Democrat. In that case, Republican judicial candidate Ernest Trunzo waited until late September to allege that his Democratic rival did not sign his own name on affidavits filed with petitions.
The 1952 court was unimpressed. “If the appellant could legally wait four months to contest an election paper,” wrote Justice Michael Musmanno, “he could wait four years."