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Walters: Residency laws for lawmakers and their selective enforcement

  • This artwork by Paul Tong relates to the fear of voter suppression in the upcoming election.

It’s no secret that quite a few state legislators actually live outside districts they represent even though state law and the constitution require them to reside in their districts.

However, it’s also no secret that most local prosecutors are reluctant to bring charges against legislators who live in one place — at least when they are not in Sacramento — but register to vote at addresses of convenience inside their districts.

A big exception has been the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, which has successfully prosecuted nine politicians, both local and legislative, for violating the residency law. The most recent is former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon, but the best known is state Sen. Rod Wright, who’s awaiting sentencing after conviction on charges of lying about his “domicile,” as the law puts it.

There are those who say it’s not a real crime. After all, they point out, members of Congress are not required to live in their districts and often don’t. Republican Congressman Tom McClintock, for instance, represents a Sierra foothill district but lives in a Sacramento suburb .

And there are those who say — Wright made this argument — that a law passed by the Legislature in 1984 to protect its members from prosecution and signed by then-Gov. George Deukmejian makes the practice legal by declaring, “The domicile of a member of the Legislature … shall be conclusively presumed to be at the residence address indicated on that person’s currently filed affidavit of registration.”

Wright was charged with registering to vote in an Inglewood apartment in his Senate district while actually living in a tonier Baldwin Hills neighborhood outside the district. He contended that the 1984 state law made it legal, but the state Court of Appeal shot down his contention in 2011, declaring that the conclusive presumption did not cover Wright because he was not registered at a legal residence.

What we seem to have, at least in practice, is a case of very selective enforcement. Pretending to live in one’s district is only a crime in Los Angeles County because only its prosecutors choose to enforce the law.

Clearly the law should either be enforced — legislators who violate it in other jurisdictions should face the music — or changed. The former would require local district attorneys to change their hear-no-evil, see-no-evil attitude. If, on the other hand, the Legislature wants to enjoy the same residential latitude as members of Congress it should have the guts to say so by passing a new law and also asking voters to amend the state constitution’s residency section.

Given the prosecutions of Alarcon, Wright and others in Los Angeles, a failure to either apply the law uniformly or change it will add even more fuel to the public’s already jaundiced view of those who hold public office.

Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.


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