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Appeals court upholds ruling in Jones' favor

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Southern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals has let stand the Jasper County Circuit Court ruling allowing Sam Jones to run for associate court judge in Lawrence County. The unanimous ruling ruled against arguments presented by Robert George that Jones had not maintained a residency in Mt. Vernon in the process of keeping a job in the Kansas City area.

The case was heard by Judges P.J. Barney, Jeffrey Bates and John Lynch.

George initially contended that the location of Jones' home in Lee's Summit was the only issue in question, a matter determined by geography not intent. The justices disagreed, citing the 2004 case of State of Missouri v. Neeley which said, "Residency is a question of fact that is to be determined from the acts and intentions of an individual citizen."

George argued Jones had registered to vote in Jackson County, suggesting an intent to reside in another county. George asserted the legal effect of the residence was the only issue, and the trail court's judgment about it did not count.

To overrule the Jasper County ruling in favor of George, the justices cited a 2004 ruling stating they would have to find an error or superior weight of evidence to the contrary. The justices looked at each point made in Jones's favor in the original ruling, and not objections raised by George, to see if the original decision was sound.

The justices cited testimony by Jones at the trial, listing the connections maintained in Lawrence County. Reasons for staying in Jackson County included having a residence near the medical center where Jones' wife, Janice, receives chemotherapy treatment for cancer.

"[If] you could tell me when and if Janice is going to recover from her illness and when the two of us would have the energy quite frankly to keep that house in condition to show at the drop of a hat, I could give you a better idea when we can be ready to leave," Jones testified. "But right now our plate is pretty full."

Jones added he and his wife would move back to Mt. Vernon as soon as they could. Every witness testified there was no question Jones intended to move back to Lawrence County. In light of the evidence, the justices supported the Jasper County court's decision in Jones' favor on the point of intent.

Meaning of legal terms

George argued the phrase "resided in" has the same meaning as "resident of" in the Missouri Constitution. The Missouri Supreme Court in the pivotal 1972 case King v. Walsh had ruled "resident of" "does not mean and require actual, physical presence, continuous and uninterrupted" for the period needed to qualify to run for office. In the King case, Kit Bond was found to have lived out of state for several years but always intended to return to his home in Mexico, Mo.

George argued the Missouri Legislature deliberately used "resided in" to differentiate eligibility rules in a 1976 constitutional amendment, rather than stick with the language in King v. Walsh. The justices found George's assertion to be "without merit."

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in the 2002 Lewis v. Gibbons case that the purpose of residency "is to ensure that governmental officials are sufficiently connected to their constituents to serve them with sensitivity and understanding." The justices determined the lack of continuous residency should not overrule the standard on connection established in the Lewis case, as George argued.

"If one looks only at the evidence favoring Jones and the trial court's judgment, as our standard of review compels us to do, Jones meets that requirement," the justices wrote.

The 1976 constitutional amendment, the justices wrote, was written to address a specific "evil," namely the lack of a timeframe for residency. The change was not to alter the "resided in" language.

"The fact that the legislature used different terminology is of no import," the justices wrote. "Equally likely, though, the legislature viewed the phrases as equivalent. In other words, the constitution provides a residency requirement and the legislature addressed only the duration, and not the substance of that requirement."

The justices cited other cases where the legislature used "resident of" and "reside within" interchangeably. George's logic suggests the terms could not mean the same thing. The justices found the legislature must believe the terms expressed no difference, and thus the variation had no bearing in the Jones case.

"Appellate courts throughout our history have used the terms interchangeably," the justices wrote. They cited three cases dating as far back as 1942.

Under the standard established by the Lewis case, the justices found that Jones qualified to run for office in Lawrence County.

Standard of voting

George further argued that by voting in Jackson County, Jones was either a resident of the county or he committed voter fraud. The justices declined to express an opinion on George's assertion, finding the vote was not an issue in the eligibility debate.

"The only issue here is whether Jones was a resident of Lawrence County for the requisite period of time, which, as previously discussed, is a question of fact," the justices wrote.

The court ruling upholds Jones as the Republican candidate for the judge's job, which he won over George in the Aug. 3 election.

Attorneys representing George in the appeal were Bruce Copeland and Jeremy Brown with the Joplin firm of Copeland and Brown. Jones was represented by Philip Baker, of Fenton.

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